Health-Care Wait Times Grew Longer in 2020, Report Finds

January 6, 2021 Updated: January 6, 2021

Wait times in Canada’s health-care system as of the end of 2020 have increased to a point that they are much longer than what physicians would consider clinically “reasonable,” according to a new survey report from the Fraser Institute think tank.

Based on data collected from specialist physicians across 12 specialities and 10 provinces between Jan. 7 and Oct. 1 2020, the report concludes that wait times for required treatment have increased since last year.

The median wait time between referral by a general practitioner and consultation with a specialist increased to 10.5 weeks in 2020, compared with 10.1 weeks in 2019. And the median wait time between consultation with a specialist and receipt of actual treatment increased to 12.1 weeks in 2020, compared with 10.8 weeks in 2019. Physicians deem a 7.8-week wait time between consultation and treatment to be clinically “reasonable,” the report says, and 12.1 weeks is 4.3 weeks longer than that.

Authors Bacchus Barua and MacKenzie Moir note that this year’s total wait time of 22.6 weeks between referral and treatment—compared to 20.9 weeks in 2019—is the longest in the survey’s history. The wait time between referral and consultation is now 184 percent longer than in 1993, when it was 3.7 weeks, while the wait time between consultation and treatment are now 116 percent longer than in 1993, when it was 5.6 weeks.

“It is estimated that, across the 10 provinces, the total number of procedures for which people are waiting in 2020 is 1,224,198. This means that, assuming each person waits for only one procedure, 3.2 percent of Canadians are waiting for treatment in 2020,” the authors write.

“Despite provincial strategies to reduce wait times and high levels of health expenditure, it is clear that patients in Canada continue to wait too long to receive medically necessary treatment.”

Wait times vary between provinces, the report noted. Ontario and Quebec are among those with the shortest waits, while the wait times in the Atlantic provinces tend to be longer. Ontario has the shortest total wait time, at 17.4 weeks, while Quebec has the shortest wait times for consultations, at 7.9 weeks. In contrast, Prince Edward Island has the longest total wait time, at 46.5 weeks, where the wait is 27.2 weeks for consultations and then 19.3 weeks before actual treatment.

Dr. Shawn Whatley is the author of “No More Lethal Waits,” a guide to reducing wait times and increasing efficiency in hospital emergency departments. He also penned the newly released “When Politics Comes Before Patients.”

Whatley says that in order to provide adequate treatment, medical practitioners are in desperate need of more resources.

“The biggest increase in waits happened in the period from specialist to treatment,” he said in an interview. “Treatment requires resources. Resources are tightly rationed. In point of fact, we have unemployed surgeons while patients languish on wait lists for the surgery those surgeons could provide if government opened the operating rooms.”

He adds that wait times for some may be even longer than the report’s findings.

“Although the average wait looks bad, it actually looks far better than reality for those on the long tail of the curve. We should look carefully at the 95th percentile waits. Those people experience what can only be called egregious waits.”

As the pandemic has highlighted the wait time problem, Barua argues that 2021 would be a good year for policy-makers to study other countries, such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Australia, to see how they can make the Canadian system more efficient.

“These countries spend about the same as Canada as a percentage of GDP on an age-adjusted basis, are committed to universal health care, but have more resources and remarkably shorter wait times,” he told The Epoch Times.

Barua, who is the associate director at the Fraser Institute’s Centre for Health Policy Studies, says if the problem is allowed to fester, there could be long-term consequences for the health of Canadians.

“Historical data clearly reveal that neither pumping money into the system nor ignoring the problem outright will solve our perennial wait times crisis,” he says.

“We need to remember that wait times are not simply benign inconveniences,” Barua adds.

“While some patients may be able to wait without significant consequences, others may be in pain, be unable to work, or experience lower productivity, or [be left to] watch helplessly as a once-treatable condition deteriorates into a permanent disability over time due to lack of medical attention.

“While COVID, of course, demands our immediate attention, Canada’s challenges with wait times existed well before the current pandemic.”