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A new pilot project aimed at streamlining hip and knee surgery in Alberta has dramatically cut waiting times to weeks from months in the province and could be expanded to other areas of health care, the government said Monday.

Discussing the interim results of the program, which was introduced in April, Health Minister Iris Evans said the time patients spend on average waiting to receive their first orthopedic consultation has dropped to six weeks from 35.

Similarly, the time spent waiting between the first consultation to surgery has dropped to 4.7 weeks from 47 weeks. The average hospital stay under the program is 4.3 days, from 6.2 days before the project was put in place.

"I think that's incredibly remarkable," Ms. Evans told reporters during a conference call to discuss the program's interim results.

"Think how that has been able to help us fast-track what has been a pretty slow boat in terms of getting those kinds of procedures done."

The program's target is 1,200 surgeries by next March. So far, 526 have been performed and the program is on track to meet its goals, Ms. Evans said.

The program introduced central assessment clinics as a means a streamlining the process and reducing the number of patients inappropriately referred for surgery. Operating rooms were dedicated solely to hip and knee replacement surgeries.

General practitioners order testing, then send patients to the central clinic. From there, they meet with specialists and their need for surgery is assessed.

Patients requiring surgery were also cared for by a physician before and after the operation, ensuring that they would be healthy enough for surgery as the date approached and result in fewer patients having to reschedule.

"We're just streaming them more quickly to the appropriate provider at the appropriate time," Dr. Cy Franks, co-chairman of the Alberta Bone and Joint Institute and one of the architects of the project, said.

He described the system as "connecting the dots" ahead of a patient, so the person receives seamless care as they move through the system.

"I personally like the airline analogy," he said. " A person is going on a trip and you have to align all of the dots for them, so when they're ready to take off, things are ready for them.

"This is exactly what this system is doing."

The cost of the system is now being evaluated. A full report on the program is due in the spring.

Dr. Franks said the project is fully funded by health care for the patients, although some of the procedures in Calgary were contracted out.

Ms. Evans also said "it's only logical" that other physicians and other disciplines will look at the evidence from the trial and see it as a strong endorsement.

"Seeing the success already," she said, "I think we'll see more the system retool in that fashion."

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