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A health-care worker walks outside the emergency department of the Vancouver General Hospital on March 30, 2020. In that month, the provincial government cancelled non-urgent surgeries to ensure there would be hospital capacity for patients with COVID-19.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

B.C.’s Ministry of Health says the province has caught up on most of the surgeries delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but some health professionals say patients continue to struggle with access to operating rooms and growing wait-lists.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said Wednesday that almost all patients whose scheduled surgeries were postponed during the first wave and still wanted to pursue a surgical treatment had their surgeries completed.

More than 96 per cent of patients whose scheduled surgeries were postponed because of the second and third waves had their surgeries; and 79 per cent of patients who were delayed because of the fourth and fifth waves, as well as extreme weather events, had their surgeries.

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In March, 2020, the provincial government cancelled elective surgeries, or non-urgent surgeries, to ensure there would be hospital capacity for patients with COVID-19. Two months later, Mr. Dix announced his plan to catch up on those COVID-delayed surgeries within two years.

“What we marked on March 31, 2022, the end of Year 2 is, I think, a relief to patients who are anxious about surgery,” Mr. Dix told reporters at a briefing.

More than 337,000 scheduled and unscheduled surgeries were completed in a 12-month period ending on March 31, he added, the most surgeries yet completed in a single year in B.C.

The government’s data also show B.C.’s surgery wait-list is 88,365, which is nearly 6 per cent lower than the number waiting before the pandemic in 2019-20.

Jason Sutherland, a professor at the University of British Columbia who researches the links between funding policy and patient-reported health outcomes, said he’s glad to see that patients whose surgeries were postponed in the first wave are almost certain to have had their surgery by now.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix arrives to discuss details about COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria on Dec. 21, 2021. Mr. Dix said Wednesday that almost all patients whose scheduled surgeries were postponed during the first wave and still wanted to pursue a surgical treatment had their surgeries completed.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

However, he noted, he’s surprised there are still so many patients waiting from the second and subsequent waves. “This is a long time to wait.”

Dr. Sutherland, as well as other health professionals, said in the past that such data provided by the ministry does not capture the full picture of the long-standing problem with surgical wait times, because it does not include a large number of patients who are yet to be scheduled.

Many orthopedic surgeons do not see the progress on surgery backlog or wait-times.

“It’s a bit of shock and awe when [Mr. Dix] comes on and says how well we’re doing, when for orthopedics, we’ve been hit disproportionately and we need to find a way to get surgery to those patients,” said Cassandra Lane Dielwart, president-elect of the British Columbia Orthopedic Association.

Nurses collect samples from a patient at St. Paul's hospital in downtown Vancouver on April 21, 2020. The government’s data show B.C.’s surgery waitlist is 88,365, which is nearly 6 per cent lower than the number waiting before the pandemic in 2019-20.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Orthopedic surgery is often labelled as elective. But the province has focused on urgent and long-waiting cases.

“It’s not imminently life saving, but it is life transforming,” said Dr. Dielwart, adding the consequences of a long wait can be astronomical.

“They lose mobility, they’ve gone from walking into your office telling you they have knee pain, to requiring a cane, requiring a walker; for the younger population who undergo hip and knee replacements in their 40s and 50s, they may no longer be able to work.”

Dr. Dielwart said wait-times for orthopedic surgery vary depending on hospitals and health authorities. At the University Hospital of Northern British Columbia, average wait-times are more than a year, with many patients waiting two years, whereas the pan-Canadian benchmark wait-time for orthopedic surgeries is within 26 weeks, she noted.

“We would need extra surgeries, got more surgeries done, more surgical time, and more funding into surgeries to do more in order to catch up,” Dr. Dielwart said.

Mr. Dix said he agrees with working with orthopedic surgeons to address the issue.

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