Surgeries in Quebec hit their lowest point in months in early September, falling well behind goals set by Health Minister Christian Dubé, according to Health Ministry data.
In June, Dubé said the province aimed to return surgical activity to 100 per cent of its pre-pandemic rate by October — or around 35,000 surgeries per month — and then exceed those numbers in the months ahead in order to clear a massive waiting list.
But at the beginning of this month, surgical activity was at only 73 per cent of that goal. In the Chaudière-Appalaches and Montérégie regions, surgeries were happening at 50 per cent of the October target. The Montreal region was slightly better than the provincial average, at 81 per cent.
Mélissa Leblanc is an obstetrician and gynecologist at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Lévis, and the vice-president of the council for doctors, dentists and pharmacists at the CISSS of Chaudières-Appalaches.
About half of the ten available operating rooms are used at any given time in Lévis and the surrounding Chaudières-Appalaches region, she told Radio-Canada. "We aren't able to treat [our patients] as quickly as we would like," she said.
"What we're seeing are waiting lists increasing non-stop," she said. "Some of our doctors have almost 50 per cent of patients on their waiting lists who have been waiting for more than six months."
A change from even a few months ago, when a six-month wait was unusual, she said.
While cancer patients are typically prioritized, people who have hemorrhages and need transfusions can't be operated on, and women who have non-cancerous yet painful ovarian cysts can't get them removed.
Across the province, there are similar stories of underused operating rooms, and a common cause — a shortage of nurses and other staff.
The government says the system is currently short more than 4,000 nurses.
Many have quit the profession, burned out by the pandemic's relentless demands, long hours and excessive overtime. Others have moved to private employers, lured by better pay and schedules.
"'It's like the chicken and the egg," Premier François Legault said at a news conference Wednesday morning. "Because we're missing some nurses, the remaining ones have to work harder. That's why it becomes urgent to add some nurses to improve the working conditions."
Leblanc acknowledged that hiring and training new staff was important but said that it was also crucial to work on retaining existing operating room nurses. "We can't work without them," she said, adding that health authorities should do whatever they can to make sure their staff stays.