Nearly 40% of Kids Waiting Beyond 'Safe' Time Frame to Receive Spinal Surgery: Study

Nearly 40% of Kids Waiting Beyond 'Safe' Time Frame to Receive Spinal Surgery: Study
Surgical instruments are used during surgery at a hospital in Washington on June 28, 2016. (The Canadian Press/AP-Molly Riley)
Isaac Teo

Four in 10 children across Canada are waiting months—far beyond the recommended time frame—for their spinal surgery, according to a new study.

The report prepared by the Conference Board of Canada says 38 percent of kids waiting for scoliosis surgery have to wait more than six months before they have a chance to be treated.

“Wait times in Canada for spinal surgery that children need far exceed the recommended safe clinical time frame in several provinces,” said the report.

“Beyond pain and emotional distress, wait times that lead to delayed surgeries result in increased costs due to disease progression, complications, more complex procedures, extended hospitalization, readmissions, and rehabilitation journeys.”

Published on Sept. 25, the report says scoliosis is the most common spinal deformity in school-aged children.

“Scoliosis is an abnormal lateral (or sideways) curvature of the spine (backbone) that develops in infancy or early childhood. It commonly emerges between the ages of 10 and 15,” researchers wrote.

The study estimated there are currently 2,778 children waiting for scoliosis surgery nationwide though it noted the challenge of collecting such data. It says only five provinces regularly release “some form of data” on pediatric surgery wait times, which also come with “significant variations and inconsistency” in their reporting.

According to available data, Nova Scotia performs the worst among provinces as 68 percent of pediatric patients receive their back or spinal surgeries after the recommended six months. Alberta has the fewest delayed cases at 13 percent.

British Columbia comes after Nova Scotia at 45 percent, followed by Saskatchewan (44 percent), New Brunswick (37 percent), and Ontario (29 percent).

Health-Care Costs

The think tank estimated delays in scoliosis surgery could cost the Canadian health-care system $44.6 million. It estimated additional costs of $1.4 million in lost productivity due to the added responsibility for caregivers of the children.

“During the prolonged waiting period for surgery, the magnitude of the curve can progress to a degree where more extensive surgery becomes necessary, surpassing the initial assessment conducted when obtaining consent for surgery,” the report said.

“More extensive, complex surgery increases the risk of potential adverse events and surgical complications, leading to a higher likelihood of extended stay in hospital, readmission, and additional operations.”

The study noted wait lists and backlogs in pediatric surgery have worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic—as they were either deferred or cancelled during the time. Over 75,000 or 23 percent fewer pediatric surgeries were performed in the country compared to the pre-pandemic period, the report added.

The study recommended retaining, hiring, and training more registered nurses, anesthesiologists, and surgeons to cope with the backlog and develop their expertise in pediatric procedures. Other recommendations include scheduling surgeries on weekends and prioritizing surgeries that were postponed during the pandemic.

As of June 2023, about 7,000 children in B.C. are waiting for surgeries. In Ontario, there were 17,091 kids on surgical wait lists in 2022—a 26 percent increase from the 2019-2022 period.