The value of time lost while waiting for treatment in Canada

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Appeared in the Toronto Sun

Imagine being told you need medical treatment, but have to wait for more than two months before you can get it.

This is the average wait time experience for more than 900,000 Canadian patients. While some of them may be lucky enough to wait for their treatment without an impact on quality of life, others may endure weeks of pain and suffering. In some cases, patients waiting for treatment may no longer be able to do their jobs properly and may be forced to take time off work and forgo their income. A new Fraser Institute study estimates that this lost time and income added up to $1.2 billion in 2014.

But this is only part of the true value of time lost as a result of long waiting lists. To begin with, this estimate is based only on the 9.8 week-wait from specialist to treatment, which doesn’t account for the 8.5 weeks it takes to see a specialist in the first place. Secondly, it only considers hours during the work week. Canadians, of course, also place value on time spent with family and friends, pursuing recreational activities, and simply being “pain-free.” If we add the value of hours lost outside the work week (including evenings and weekends, but excluding eight hours of sleep) the cost estimate rises to $3.7 billion.

Large as this number is, it’s still likely an underestimate because it does not include the cost of care provided by family members and friends, or the very real possibility of increased disability (or, in some cases, death) as a patient’s condition deteriorates while they wait for treatment.

In fact, a more comprehensive estimate from a 2008 study by the Centre for Spatial Economics pegged the economic cost of waiting for just four procedures (joint replacement, coronary artery bypass surgery, cataract surgery, and MRI scans) at $14.8 billion—plus another $4.4 billion in foregone government revenues from a reduction in economic activity.

By all accounts, wait times are costing Canadian patients and the economy dearly. And yet, we resolutely stick to our failed model, and prevent patients from seeking private relief within our borders.

Part of the reason for this is that health care policy in Canada is routinely debated as though any change from the status quo will result in a collapse of the universal health care promise we cherish so dearly.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The experiences of developed countries around the world show that it’s entirely possible to sustain an affordable universal health care system without excessive wait times. For example, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and Switzerland all spend about the same as we do on their universal healthcare systems (on an age-adjusted basis). However, none of them have the long wait times we see in Canada. Even Australia and Sweden, countries where wait times can sometimes be problematic, perform better than Canada on measures of timeliness.

The experiences of other countries prove that lost time and lost income caused by long waits for treatment are not a necessary by-product of a universal healthcare system. We owe it to the Canadians who are quietly suffering through their medical limbo to examine and pursue policies that have enabled these countries to offer timely access to quality care.

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