Waiting for Health Care: A Terrible and Treatable Disease

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, LaPresse, Whitehorse Daly Star, and Flin Flon Reminder

Waiting has become a defining characteristic of the Canadian health care experience. Patients stricken with illness, from mild to serious, must wait their turn for access to emergency care, family doctors, medical specialists, diagnostic scans, and treatment.

These delays, which can be quite substantial, impose needless costs on Canadians in terms of their economic, social, and mental well-being and can lead to less-desirable health care outcomes. Fortunately, this serious health care problem can be readily solved through policy reforms based on European successes.

The health consequences imposed on Canadians by delayed access to universally accessible care are too often ignored in the health care debate. To be clear, some Canadians can wait (and wait…) with minimal consequence. Not so for others. Long delays can lead to a further deterioration in the untreated condition, meaning a more complex and difficult treatment at the end of the wait and possibly a poorer outcome also. For some, long waits may condemn them to life-long disability or even death. The potentially fatal nature of waiting was not lost on the Supreme Court of Canada when it ruled against the public monopoly in health insurance in Quebec in 2005.

And there are psychological consequences of waiting as well. Some may develop addiction to narcotics they take while waiting. Some will contend with loneliness imposed on them by the untreated medical condition possibly from reduced mobility but also potentially because of a risk of deeply embarrassing events such as falls or incontinence. That embarrassment may also extend to increased reliance on others, even for the basics of life such as washing. And some may end up struggling with depression, despite the temporary nature of their situation.

In the midst of these physical and psychological consequences are important economic consequences related to reduced productivity in the workplace, an increased need to take time off, and possibly impacts on family income.

And what can governments in Canada say to Canadians whose lives have been harmed (if not destroyed) by long wait times for medically necessary care? They cannot, with any honesty, tell them the wait time was unavoidable in a universal access health care system. Nor can they honestly say they are on the path to meaningfully and permanently shortening wait times for those stricken with illness.

Canada’s universal access health care system imposes on Canadians some of the longest waits for emergency care, primary care, specialist consultations, and elective surgery in the developed world. Other developed nations do a better job with timeliness for lower (sometimes much lower) health expenditures.

The latest evidence on efforts to reduce wait times across Canada suggests failure: spend and manage approaches simply don’t work in reducing delay. Efforts that fail to deal with the underlying policies that created waiting lists in the first place will only leave provinces facing a larger bill for the same delays.

So what does work? The evidence from Europe suggests that fostering competition, where compensation follows patients is a key approach to reductions in waiting. Broadly defined wait time targets, with clear and serious consequences for those who fail to meet them, also seem to work well. And, if the experiences of Belgium, France, Germany, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland are to be believed, a larger role for the private sector in financing and delivery can lead to universal access health care without queues for treatment.

All this flies in the face of what we’re constantly told about waiting and health care in Canada.

We’re told that a public monopoly is the most efficient approach to universality, yet these other nations spend less and get more timely care with a private parallel system.

We’re told that public provision and management are the keys to solving the wait times problem, yet these other nations have improved timeliness (and, in the case of the Netherlands, got rid of wait times problems) by embracing competition and activity-based funding.

We’re told public hospitals are the only way to have a good universal system, yet these other nations have more accessible and less expensive systems with the inclusion of private hospitals.

We’re told the answer can only be found in the ‘public’ system, yet we know that competition, with money following the patient to the facility of their choice (private or public), means shorter wait times and more patient-focused care.

Long wait times in Canada are causing Canadians significant harm. The solution to this problem is to step away from the wrong-headed, ideologically-guided approach governments are taking today. Policy-makers should instead focus on how other, more successful, universal-access nations have improved the timeliness of health care for their citizens. Our health care problems aren’t unique or different from anyone else’s, and it’s time we took a more pragmatic approach to reform with policies that actually work.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.