Long wait times for health care predated pandemic
After a two-year battle with COVID-19, Toronto’s top public health official recently expressed cautious optimism as cases continue to decline. However, as we now hopefully near the end of this battle, it’s time to look around and survey the damage across Canada.
One of the many consequences of the necessary focus on COVID has been the associated lack of resources available for other health-care services. The result? According to the latest data, in 2021, across 12 specialities, Canadians waited a median of 25.6 weeks between referral from a general practitioner to receipt of elective treatment, the longest wait time ever recorded. And to be clear, elective surgery does not usually refer to optional, but rather scheduled or planned treatments (in contrast to emergencies) such as hip and knee surgery but also pre-emptive cancer and elective cardiac bypass and stent surgeries.
This represents a 175 per cent jump from when this measurement was first taken in 1993 when the median wait time was 9.3 weeks. Importantly, however, Canadians could also expect to wait 20.9 weeks for treatment in 2019—before the pandemic started. So while COVID exacerbated wait times over the past two years, patients still faced significant wait times prior to the pandemic.
Of course, wait times vary significantly across provinces. Ontario reported the shortest median provincial wait in 2021 (18.5 weeks) while Nova Scotia reported the longest (53.2 weeks).
Wait times also vary by specialty. For example, Canadians could expect a median wait time of 49.2 weeks for neurosurgery and 46.1 weeks for orthopaedic surgery. However, radiation and medical oncology treatments had the shortest wait times at 3.7 and 4.4 respectively with cardiology coming in at the third shortest wait at 11.8 weeks.
For diagnostic technology, where long wait times can lead to poorer health outcomes, in 2021 Canadians could expect to wait 10.2 weeks for an MRI, 5.2 weeks for a CT scan and 3.6 weeks for an ultrasound. For CT scans, four provinces (including Ontario) had a wait time of four weeks—shorter than other provinces. For MRI scans, Ontario continued to outperform other provinces with the shortest wait times in Canada (six weeks). Alberta had the longest wait time for diagnostic technology for both CT scans (10 weeks) and MRIs (24 weeks) while Prince Edward Island reported the longest wait times in the country for ultrasounds (16 weeks).
Overall, an estimated 1.4 million Canadians waited for an elective procedure in 2021—a 16 per cent increase from the year before. If we assume that each Canadian was only waiting for one procedure, this figure would represent 3.7 per cent of the population that year.
With the damage surveyed, Canadians are beginning to get a clearer picture of the state of our health-care system now that we are, hopefully, transitioning to a post-pandemic world. With some of the longest wait times in the developed world, provincial governments must take a hard look at their programs if they hope to provide timely relief to Canadians currently waiting for medically necessary care.