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What can I do about a lengthy wait time for surgery?

The Question

I am a healthy female executive who requires a hip replacement. When I saw the orthopedic surgeon, I left feeling optimistic when he said we would be in touch shortly. A month went by and I heard nothing. I called, left a message and weeks went by. Finally, a recording said "if you are calling about your surgery date, your call will not be returned." The word "not" was emphasized. When I finally got through, the secretary rudely told me the July and August schedule was full. I called again but she was now on maternity leave; I was told by another secretary my file was on her desk for the October "considerations" but still no firm date. I am so frustrated, I could just cry. I have no life. I cannot walk for more than 15 minutes at a time. Please give me some advice.

The Answer

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Your predicament is troubling for two reasons: One, you are faced with a long wait that is unknown, seemingly leaving you with no control, and secondly, there is a significant issue with the office worker's communication style. She should be able to tell you roughly where you are on the list. The fact she has not suggests she is not on top of the file, making you at risk of falling through the cracks.

"This is one of those stories you don't want to hear," said Ken Hughes, an orthopedic surgeon based in Richmond, B.C. "Patients are in the system and there is a courtesy issue; it's really basic communication that's required. She was led to believe it could be expected to be done at a certain time."

Hip and knee replacements are expected to be completed within 26 weeks after seeing the surgeon, according to provincial benchmarks set by the 2004 Health Accord that identified five areas in need of improving timely access to care. Some provinces do a better job of meeting that target for hip patients than others – Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Newfoundland among them – according to the 2012 Wait Time Alliance report card released last month. Having said that, waits still vary significantly by surgeon, hospital and city – a situation you can use to your advantage if you choose to shop around.

"It's one of those things where patients have to make a difficult decision on whether to go see somebody else," said Dr. Hughes, former president of the British Columbia Orthopaedic Association. "The [unknown] wait time causes difficulty for patients because they don't know how to plan for their immediate future." Dr. Hughes sees this in his own practice; patients have travelled to Richmond, B.C. to avoid longer queues in the northern part of the province.

Though you can look for a new orthopedic surgeon, you will be faced with two waits all over again – one for the consultation and another for surgery. I recommend you first go to your family doctor and request a referral to a joint assessment centre. There, health care providers triage patients for surgery, ensuring those who need it quickly are seen in a timely manner. This is your best chance of ensuring fair access to a health care system that, at times, can seem daunting, fragmented and in your case, sorely lacking in customer service.

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