Saskatchewan proved that reform can shorten wait times
Patients waiting for health care in Saskatchewan are fed up. In fact, 68 per cent of Saskatchewanians are dissatisfied with the government’s job. This frustration isn’t surprising. From the recently-publicized case of Nadine Baker, a Regina woman who’s been waiting close to a year to receive a breast cancer diagnosis, to reports that hundreds of residents passed away while waiting for surgery, Saskatchewan’s health-care system, like most of the rest of the country, is clearly struggling.
Unfortunately, the challenges don’t stop there.
According to a new study, Saskatchewan had the second-highest total wait (outside the Atlantic provinces) for non-emergency surgery in 2023 at 31 weeks. This is more than three weeks longer than the national average and represents two distinct stages.
The first is the time it takes to first see a specialist after receiving a referral from your family doctor (which was 14.3 weeks last year in Saskatchewan). And the time it takes to receive treatment after a consultation with your specialist (which last year was 16.7 weeks in the province).
Looking back, Saskatchewan reported its longest recorded median wait in 1999 at 34.5 weeks. Since then, the two shortest waits occurred in 2014 (at 14.2 weeks) and 2015 (at 13.6 weeks), only 10 years ago. In other words, despite the fact that waits for medical care in Canada are a perennial issue and are generally worsening, the experience from Saskatchewan shows us wait times can be shortened (if only temporarily).
In 2010, the Saskatchewan government, in part because of increasing dissatisfaction from citizens, embarked on a series of critical reforms known as the Saskatchewan Surgical Initiative (SSI). It’s goal was simple. Lower surgery wait times for patients. Former NDP finance minister Janice MacKinnon has written on this period of reform in the province.
The SSI was a multipronged strategy to tackle waits. Among the reforms was the creation of a centralized specialist referral system, which allowed patients a choice to either be matched with a specialist with the shortest wait or a specialist of their own choosing. Another large part of SSI was to increase the surgical capacity of the province by contracting with private clinics to help deliver publicly-funded surgeries.
The province went from having one of the longest total wait times outside Atlantic Canada in 2010 (26.5 weeks) to having one of the shortest by 2014 (14.2 weeks). That represents almost a halving of the wait times for Saskatchewan patients. In addition, the private clinics delivered procedures at 26 per cent lower cost (on average) than comparable public hospitals.
While the SSI lowered wait times, wait times began creeping upward soon after the program ended. In fact, waits in the province reached 26 weeks in 2019 (a year before the pandemic).
Instead of continuing to rely on temporary solutions alone, Saskatchewan—and other provinces— need a break from the status quo. Until that occurs, patients will continue to languish on wait lists with no real plan from their government for permanent relief.
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