Canada’s medical wait times are unacceptable

Two reports on medical wait times released last week underscore three key points that the more than one million Canadians waiting for medically necessary treatment already know from often bitter experience.

First, that access to a waiting list for health care is not health care.

Second, that waiting for medically necessary treatment imposes a financial burden on patients in addition to physical and psychological ones.

Third, that excessive wait times for medically necessary treatment have become a permanent feature of Canada’s health care system.

One of the reports, by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, found that among other medical procedures, 30% of patients across Canada in 2018 requiring hip or knee replacement, or cataract surgery, did not have their procedures done within recommended wait times.

But that’s only half the story because the recommended wait times for hip and knee replacement are themselves excessive — 182 days or six months — and 112 days or almost four months for cataract surgery.

Excessive wait times not only cause mental and physical stress for Canadians waiting for treatment, but, as the Fraser Institute reported in its own study last week, financial hardship.

The Fraser study estimated the private costs incurred by the more than one million Canadians waiting for medically necessary treatment last year at $2.1 billion, or an average of $1,924 per patient, due to lost wages and reduced work productivity.

The study also says this is a conservative estimate because it excludes the costs to patients waiting for medical treatment outside of the traditional work week and doesn’t factor in time spent waiting to see a specialist for treatment after being referred by a family doctor, which is often longer than clinically recommended.

It’s true that the available money for medically necessary health care in Canada — paid for by taxpayers — will always fall short of the demand for medically necessary treatment.

That’s because financial resources are finite while the growing demand for health care is virtually unlimited, particularly in light of the increasing medical costs of caring for the giant and aging baby boomer generation.

Finally, excessive medical wait times aren’t, despite what our politicians tell us, examples of our health care system failing to function as it should.

In reality, Canada’s health care system could not function without excessive wait times for medically necessary care, as a way of rationing health care to Canadians.

This status quo is unacceptable, particularly in light of the fact that many modern industrialized countries around the world are having better health care outcomes than we do in Canada, because of the more efficient ways they deliver health care.

Indeed, meekly accepting excessive wait times as the price of a functioning health care system in Canada is the exact opposite of what we should be doing, which is demanding better performances by our federal and provincial governments that preside over health care.

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