Fraser Forum

Health-care treatment wait times costs Canadians estimated $1.7 billion last year

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In 2016, we published the results of our 26th annual physician survey, documenting the extent of wait times in Canada. Over time, as additional information and measures have become available from provincial governments and independent organizations (such as the CIHI, and the Commonwealth Fund), there can be no doubt that Canadians face remarkably long wait times for treatment.

These wait times can, in many cases, have very real consequences.

For example, data from Statistics Canada suggest that about 13.2 per cent of patients reported that they were adversely affected by their wait for non-emergency surgery in 2013. Using this estimation with more recent data on the median specialist-to-treatment wait in 2016 (10.6 weeks), the number of patients waiting for treatment (973,505) and average weekly wages suggest that the economic cost of waiting for treatment was about $1.7 billion or about $1,759 per patient.

Of course, this is a very conservative estimate, based only on hours lost during the work week. There’s also a value to the time individuals spend waiting in a reduced capacity on evenings and weekends, unable to fully enjoy activities with their families, pursue hobbies or simply be pain free. When we include the value of time outside the traditional work week—evenings and weekends—the estimated cost of waiting jumps from $1.7 billion to $5.2 billion, or from $1,759 per patient to about $5,360 per patient.

Large as this number may be, it still doesn’t include the 9.4 week wait patients have to endure to see a specialist in the first place. Nor does it account for the potential for minor treatable conditions worsening over time, requiring more complex surgery, and risking worse medical outcomes. No one should, for example, forget the young British Columbian who was expected to wait for 27 months for surgery to correct the curvature of his spine. Although the young man finally received treatment—not in Canada, but the United States—by then the curvature of his spine had more than doubled, the surgery was unsuccessful, and he was rendered a paraplegic.

It’s also possible that, in the rarest of cases, if patients are forced to wait long enough they may face the ultimate consequence—death. In fact, a 2014 study estimated that between 25,456 and 63,090 Canadian women may have died as a result of increased wait times between 1993 and 2009.

Whether the consequences of long wait times are felt in physical, emotional or economic terms, they’re not benign inconveniences. Nor are they the necessary price for universal health care. We can, and should, strive to create a better system for patients in Canada.


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