Fraser Institute report suggests hospital wait times cost Canadians over $1 billion

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

A lot of Canadians saw Dr. Danielle Martin's smack-down of a U.S. Senate committee in Washington a couple of weeks ago.

Video of it, showing the Toronto-based doctor defending the Canadian single-payer healthcare system and hospital wait times, has — as they say — gone viral.

The reality, however, is that wait times in this country are a problem. Just how big of a problem is highlighted in a new Fraser Institute report, released on Monday.

The pro-free market think-tank's annual study titled The Private Cost of Public Queues for Medically Necessary Care, claims that hospital wait times cost the Canadian economy $1.1 billion in lost workplace productivity in 2013 -- an average of about $1,202 for each of the estimated 928,120 Canadians waiting for treatment in 2013.

"The negative impact of wait times on the productivity of patients and their ability to participate fully in life is an issue too often ignored in the health care debate," the study's author Nadeem Esmail said in an accompanying press release adding that Canadians are waiting longer for health care.

"Reduced productivity in the workplace, or reduced ability to engage with family and friends, may impact family income and increase stress for Canadian patients.

"Without sensible health policy reform, waiting will remain a defining characteristic of the Canadian health care experience, and delays, while negatively impacting the health and well-being of patients, will also continue to rob patients of valuable time."

[ Related: Canadian doctor holds her own at Senate subcommittee on socialized medicine ]

The Fraser Institute isn't the only group raising alarm bells about wait times.

A February 2013 bulletin by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, notes that despite their best efforts, provincial governments aren't having much luck tackling wait times. The CIHI report also cites a 2010 Commonwealth Fund Survey of 11 countries which highlights Canada's poor world-wide ranking.

"Canada had the highest proportion (25%) of patients reporting a wait of four months or more for elective surgery. This proportion is similar to that for the United Kingdom (21%) but much higher than for Germany (almost 0%) and the United States (7%)."

A group calling themselves the Wait Time Alliance notes that our health care system even ranks poorly compared to other publicly financed systems.

"The average wait time for hip and knee replacements in the Netherlands is eight weeks, and the average wait time for cataract surgery is five weeks,3 yet many Canadians wait longer than 26 weeks for a hip or knee replacement and more than 16 weeks for cataract surgery," notes WTA's report from June 2013.

"Both Scotland and England have set and met the target of having 90% of elective care patients wait no longer than 18 weeks from general practitioner referral to start of treatment for a wide range of medical care. This 18-week period includes the wait period before seeing a specialist and the wait for any diagnostic tests."

And another more recent Commonwealth Fund study ranked Canada last among 11 OECD countries in terms of how quickly patients can get an appointment with their regular family doctor.

[ Related: ‘Health care insurance’ costs skyrocket in Canada: Is our system unsustainable? ]

So what's the solution?

Some advocate for more money as a means to alleviate long wait times. The problem with this solution, of course, is that some cash-strapped provinces are already spending upwards of 40 per cent of all tax revenues on healthcare.

The Fraser Institute has, in the past, pushed for more private options as an enhancement to our public healthcare system.

And, citing OECD recommendations, the WTA report suggests a series of structural changes.

"The OECD has concluded that countries that have implemented structural changes are more likely to succeed in reducing wait times on a sustained basis," notes their report.

"Structural changes implemented at the national level have included adopting activity-based budgeting for hospitals (rather than applying global budgeting, as is done in Canada), adopting wait-time guarantees that are enforced and that provide greater choice for patients who wish to find alternative providers with shorter wait times (often through integrated information systems) and using clinical prioritization and appropriateness tools to assess and prioritize patient need."

While the proposed solutions will undoubtedly create some lively debate, most seem to agree that wait times in this country are unacceptable.

With an aging population and inflationary pressures shouldn't our politicians be having this debate?

(Photo courtesy of Reuters)

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