Sask. boasts record number of surgeries performed, but tens of thousands still waiting

Saskatchewan's government says the province broke a single-year record for surgeries and has promised to break that mark again in 2023-24. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Saskatchewan's government says the province broke a single-year record for surgeries and has promised to break that mark again in 2023-24. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Saskatchewan government says it set a new record for number of surgeries performed in a year, but more than 32,000 people are still waiting for procedures.

On Wednesday, the province issued a news release boasting that more than 90,000 surgical procedures were performed from April 1, 2022, to March 31, 2023, the most ever recorded in Saskatchewan in one year.

"This progress is welcome news as we move forward with surgical investments increasing by $42.5 million in this year's budget. We will continue to maximize system capacity by optimizing public surgical services and expanding the involvement of private sector partners in publicly funded surgical service delivery," Health Minister Paul Merriman said in a news release.

The government is aiming to eclipse last year's record mark by completing 103,000 surgeries in 2023-24.

It said it will accomplish this by "long-term investment in both public surgical services and publicly funded privately delivered centres." It said short-term strategies involve "utilizing efficiencies in operating rooms and scheduling processes as well as ensuring key staffing complements."

In March 2022, the federal government pledged $62 million to help reduce Saskatchewan's surgical backlog.

More than 32K on wait list

Saskatchewan's surgery wait-list hit a pandemic peak of 35,499 in November 2021. Today it sits at 32,013. The wait-list was at 24,894 in February 2020.

The government has set a target of 25,000 or less on the wait-list by March 31, 2024.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said roughly 80 per cent of people waiting 18 months or more for surgery were waiting for one of the following procedures:

  • Hip, knee, or shoulder replacement.

  • Naso-septal reconstruction.

  • Eye or eyelid procedures.

  • Certain spine procedures.

  • Hernias.

  • Dental surgery under anesthetic.

  • Tonsillectomy and other ear/nose/throat procedures.

  • Hysterectomy.

  • Bunionectomy.

  • Cataract procedures.

  • Various interventions of breast, sinus, brain/spinal cord.

Government increases money to private Calgary clinic by $4M

In the 2023-24 budget, the government committed $6 million to have private Calgary clinic Canadian Surgical Solutions perform knee and hip surgeries.

Merriman has said the government plans to continue to use private clinics, with taxpayers covering the costs.

He said the clinic would do 20 surgeries a month or 240 surgeries in total.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees criticized the deal when it was announced.

"With this trajectory, we see that the government is moving toward nothing but privatization," CUPE Local 5430 President Bashir Jalloh told the Canadian Press in March.

On May 16, the government signed an order in council to increase the total spending for the Calgary clinic to $10 million.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement the increase to $10 million from $6 million "was done in the event that we need to temporarily extend out-of-province surgeries while the Regina Ortho Surgery Centre becomes operational."

Opposition says government should invest in public surgical centre

The NDP Opposition said more surgeries being done is positive, but that the wait-list and wait times are still too long.

"The number of folks who are on the wait-list has increased 43 per cent since Scott Moe took office five years ago. The wait times have increased 84 per cent in the same period of time," said Vicki Mowat, Opposition health critic.

Mowat cited Canadian Institute of Health Information (CIHI) data that shows Saskatchewan ranking last among provinces in hip and knee replacement surgeries in 2022.

Mowat and the NDP have spoken out against a public-private surgery model.

She said the deal with the clinic in Calgary won't save the province money.

"The problem with the surgeries in Calgary is that people still need to pay out of pocket to get there. It still divides the haves and the have-nots. If you have the ability to pay for your own accommodations, your own way to Calgary, that means that you jump the queue for surgery."

Mowat said the government should invest in a public surgical centre.

In 2012, Premier Brad Wall announced the Plains Surgery and Outpatient Care Centre in Regina.

The centre was never built. In 2020, then-NDP Leader Ryan Meili made a campaign promise to build a public surgery centre and joked he would name it after Wall.

"Public surgical centres can realize many of the same benefits that private ones can. It's just they don't take a profit off of it. So our health-care dollars are going to go further," Mowat said.

Mowat said the provincial government needs to rebuild primary care, because without access to a family doctor or a specialist, people cannot be diagnosed and wait-lists will remain long.

"We just need to make sure that we are hiring people. So once again it comes down to the staffing shortage that exists in our province and this government's inability to recruit and retain health-care workers."