Wait Time for Medical Treatment Cost Canadian Patients Nearly $4.1 Billion in Lost Wages in 2021

Wait Time for Medical Treatment Cost Canadian Patients Nearly $4.1 Billion in Lost Wages in 2021
A bed is moved in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver on April 21, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)
Isaac Teo

Long waits for surgery and medical treatment that affected some 1.4 million Canadian patients in 2021 cost them nearly $4.1 billion in lost wages and productivity, a new study by think tank Fraser Institute estimates.

The study, published on April 20, says about 1,425,517 million Canadians were in the queue waiting for medically necessary treatment last year, costing them $2,848 per person on average due to lost wages and reduced productivity during working hours.
This estimate “places no intrinsic value on the time individuals spend waiting in a reduced capacity outside of the working week,” the study noted.
“While we are constantly reminded of the consequences of COVID-19, less discussed are the consequences of unreasonable waits for surgery which can range from physical pain and psychological distress for some, to permanent disability and death for others,” study co-author Bacchus Barua, director of health policy studies at the Fraser Institute, said in a news release.
Citing data from a previous survey, published last December, of physicians across 12 specialties and 10 provinces in 2021, the authors said the result shows that the national median waiting time from specialist appointment to treatment was 14.5 weeks that year—2.4 weeks longer than the wait of 12.1 weeks in 2020.

The cost of waiting for medical care across the country hit almost $4.1 billion in 2021, the authors estimated.

“Crucially, the $4.1 billion in lost wages is likely a conservative estimate because it doesn’t account for the additional 11.1-week wait to see a specialist after receiving a referral from a general practitioner,” wrote Barua and co-author Fraser Institute policy analyst Mackenzie Moir in the release.

“Taken together (11.1 weeks and 14.5 weeks), the total median wait time in Canada for medical treatment was 25.6 weeks in 2021—the longest in the survey’s history.”

The Fraser Institute has been conducting the survey yearly since 1993.

Provinces that surpassed the national median wait time of 14.5 weeks in 2021 include Nova Scotia at 34.1 weeks, New Brunswick at 22.6 weeks, Manitoba at 19.6 weeks, Quebec at 17.7 weeks, Alberta and Prince Edward Island at 17.5 weeks, and Saskatchewan at 16.7 weeks. Only B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario had median wait times shorter than the national figure, at 13.9 weeks, 10.7 weeks, and 10.3 weeks respectively.

The study said that while delayed medical treatment could be due to hospitals prioritizing COVID-19 cases, earlier survey results show that a long list of patients have been waiting for their turn since before the pandemic.

“While some of this backlog is the direct result of COVID-19 related closures, results from the same survey suggest that almost as many (1.1 million) patients were waiting for treatment in 2019—before the pandemic started,” said Moir in the news release.

The authors also noted that the cost of waiting per patient varied widely across the provinces. Nova Scotia saw the highest cost of waiting per patient in 2021, at $6,343, while Manitoba came next at $3,519, followed by New Brunswick at $3,235, Alberta at $3,199, and Saskatchewan at $3,129.

With the exception of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, every province saw an increase in cost.

Provinces with the highest increase in total cost of waiting include Quebec at about $516 million (187 percent), Nova Scotia at about $274 million (68 percent), and Ontario at nearly $218 million (36 percent). Manitoba’s total cost was raised by $127 million (106 percent) while British Columbia trailed at $72 million (15 percent).

The authors stressed that although the total cost in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador decreased by about $84 million and $11 million respectively, the numbers should be interpreted cautiously due to missing data in these provinces, which resulted in an “incomplete accounting” of the costs that patients bear.

The study said that its estimates only accounted for the monetary costs borne by the individuals waiting for treatment, not the non-monetary costs and the impact on family member caregivers.

“The costs of care provided by family members (in time spent caring for the individual waiting for treatment) and their lost productivity due to difficulty or mental anguish, are not valued in this estimate,” the authors wrote.

“Non-monetary medical costs, such as increased risk of mortality or adverse events that result from long delays for treatment, are also not included in this estimate.”