A new report1 from the Fraser Institute exposes what many Canadians are already experiencing first hand: medical wait times are becoming unacceptably long. Its 21st Annual Waiting List Survey revealed that during 2011, wait times in all areas of health care were longer than they have been since they started conducting the survey. Some important findings include:

  • Since 1993, the amount of time between a general practitioner referring a patient to a specialist and the patient receiving medically-necessary elective treatment has risen from 9.3 weeks to 19 weeks.
  • Most physicians agree that 6.4 weeks is a reasonable wait time between meeting with a specialist and receiving treatment, yet the average patient has to wait 9.5 weeks.
  • Patients have to wait far too long for CT scans (4.2 weeks), MRIs (9.2 weeks), and ultrasounds (4.6 weeks). This is a problem, because physicians rely on these tests to determine the severity of an ailment and, therefore, the urgency of treatment, making extended wait time dangerous in some circumstances.
  • There are too few physicians to perform the treatments patients need.
  • Frequently, in hospitals, operating rooms are systematically underused and individuals who should be cared for elsewhere occupy acute hospital beds.
  • About 1% of patients in Canada opted to have medically necessary elective treatments in other countries, even though they had to pay, to avoid the long wait times.

The Canadian numbers are staggering on their own, but when compared to Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US, Canada’s wait times are the longest. Our medical services may be of high quality, but it is taking too much time for patients to receive them. The longer our health care system forces patients to wait to receive their treatment, the more it seems as though it is denying Canadians the help they need.

Further research2 by The Wait Time Alliance (WTA), a group of several medical professional associations in Canada across numerous disciplines, in a new report presented by the Canadian Medical Association, reveals that the absence of a concerted national effort to reduce wait times is undermining progress on addressing the time lags endured by Canadians needing medical care.

The 2012 WTA report card, entitled Shedding Light on Canadians’ Total Wait for Care, gives Canadians a picture of how long they have to wait to access a broad range of medical procedures and services. In a reversal from past years, the 2012 Report Card shows a decline in performance for patients receiving care in the five areas identified as priorities by federal, provincial, and territorial governments under the 2004 Health Accord. The Report Card also highlights the total wait that patients can face to receive care. Although most efforts to date in Canada are focusing on improving the wait between the specialist consultation and the start of treatment, many Canadians are also waiting to see their family physician, obtain medical tests, and be seen by a specialist.

The Report Card also found that while provinces are increasing the number of procedures for which they publicly report wait times, there remains little reporting on most of the procedures identified as priorities by the WTA.

The 2012 WTA Report Card reaffirmed the 2011 finding that alternate-levels-of-care patients – those in hospital who should ideally be receiving care elsewhere – threaten to overwhelm the health care system.

“After making progress in recent years, at least against government benchmarks, it now appears some provinces are being left behind in the battle to reduce the time patients wait for health care,” said Dr. Chris Simpson, a cardiologist in Kingston, ON, and chair of the WTA. “There should be no ‘have not’ patients in Canada.”

First published in the Inside Tract® newsletter issue 183 – 2012
1. www.fraserinstitute.orgFraser Forum January/February 2012
2. News Release. CMA. Ottawa, June 19, 2012.