Skip to main content

The two studies come as federal and provincial ministers prepare to negotiate a new health care.Wavebreakmedia Ltd

Canadians continue to queue up for medical care with efforts to reduce wait times bringing limited improvements, say two new studies that come one month before federal and provincial ministers meet to begin negotiating a new health accord.

The pair of annual reports – one from the Wait Time Alliance, the other from the Fraser Institute – find little year-over-year change in the wait for medically necessary procedures. Where there is improvement, the report from the Wait Time Alliance finds the progress is "spotty" with access to care, dependent on where in the country you live and, at times, your age.

The Alliance, a coalition of medical specialists, is calling on elected provincial and federal leaders to help fashion a "new national vision for health care," one that sets national benchmarks that go beyond the 2004 initiative that targeted five procedures: hip and knee replacements; cataract surgery; heart operations; diagnostic imaging; and cancer radiotherapy.

"We still don't measure nearly enough," said Dr. Chris Simpson, chair of the alliance and a former president of the Canadian Medical Association. "You can't fix what you can't measure."

At a time when more care is moving out of the hospital, Dr. Simpson said wait times for home care and long-term care beds should be monitored by all provinces, as should the number of patients in hospital because they cannot access these services.

When health ministers meet in January in Vancouver, Dr. Simpson said he hopes a partnership to establish such standards will be part of the discussion, rather than just the level of federal funding. "If we have made a collective mistake in the past, it is to say to the federal government, 'It's all up to you,'" he said.

The annual report card provides a snapshot of wait times across a range of measures gathered from provincially available information this summer. In doing so, it highlights the variation in the information available among provinces, and this year also notes that the federal government – responsible for delivering health care to First Nations, refugees, veterans, Canadian Forces and inmates in federal prisons – provides only limited data on its own performance.

The study, which give a grade to provinces across a range of procedures, finds those provinces that got high marks last year – Saskatchewan, Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador – continue to do well.

Both studies point to the success of Saskatchewan in cutting wait times as evidence of what can be done with a focused effort and both note that the improvement came from more than increased funding.

In five years, the number of patients in Saskatchewan waiting more than six months for surgery dropped by 96 per cent, the Alliance report card finds, thanks to a $176-million investment over four years and also because of innovative practices.

Bacchus Barua, a senior economist at the Fraser Institute and author of its wait-time study, said measures such as a pooled referral system helped give Saskatchewan the shortest wait times in the survey.

The report from the Fraser Institute is based on a survey of specialists and tracks the time between the initial referral and the appointment with a specialist as well as the time between seeing a specialist and treatment. At the national level, it found the median wait time from referral to treatment was 18.3 weeks, almost the same as the 18.2 weeks recorded in 2014, but almost double the 9.3 weeks recorded in 1993 when the survey began.

"Across Canada, wait times have stabilized, but they have stabilized at a very high level," Mr. Barua said.

Saskatchewan had the shortest total wait at 13.6 weeks and Prince Edward Island had the longest at 43.1 weeks, although the small sample size in PEI makes that result less reliable. Among specialties, the longest waits were for orthopedic surgery at 35.7 weeks and the shortest were for patients in line for radiation oncology at 4.1 weeks, the study said.

Interact with The Globe