COVID-19 pandemic will only add to problem
The Canadian economy lost almost $2.1 billion in lost productivity and wages in 2019 due to long wait times for surgery and other medical treatments, according to a Fraser Institute study.
“While there are some patients who can wait for treatment, there are many others who may not be able to do so without pain or suffering or requiring additional mental care and there’s an economic cost in terms of lost productivity and wages,” says Bacchus Barua, associate director at the Fraser Institute Centre for Health Policy Studies in Vancouver. “Looking at the value of time lost while waiting for treatment and our estimate in 2019… it cost our economy about $2 billion or about $2,000 per patient.”
The annual survey found that the median wait time after an appointment with a specialist was 10.8 weeks, which is about three-and-a-half weeks longer than what physicians considered reasonable, found the study. It was shorter than 2018 numbers by 0.2 weeks, but the total wait time (between referral from a general practitioner to treatment) jumped to 20.9 weeks up from 19.8 weeks the previous year.
But the $2.1-billion figure doesn’t show the true extent of the problem, says Barua, because it doesn’t take into account non-workweek-hours. If those hours were included, the figures would be counted as a $6.4-billion cost, or about $5,972 per person.
“This is a conservative estimate [because] it’s only based on the wait between the specialist or treatment. It’s not looking at the 10.1 weeks it usually takes to see a specialist in the first place, which of course could also add to additional economic costs and additional consequences for patients.”
Policy reform needed
More health-care funding is not the way to solve the problem, says Barua, as other countries have shorter wait times due to other factors.
“When we look at Canada versus other successful universal health-care systems, when you look at countries like Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Australia, Sweden, they all have universal health care, they’re all spending about the same amount, sometimes a little bit more, sometimes a little bit less.”
The problem is nobody’s actually really looking at policy reform, he says.
“They view the private sector not as antithetical to universal health care, the way we often look at it in Canada, but as an important ally. These countries generally partner with the private sector to contract surgeries out or to provide insurance. They have the private sector operating often as a pressure valve; it helps alleviate some of the strain on the public system.”
Those other countries “all have dramatically shorter wait times,” he says and it’s due to how they allow the private sector to partake in the health system, which is not really allowed due to restrictions of the Canada Health Act (CHA).
“They expect patients to share in the cost of treatment in the form of copay, whereas in Canada because there’s only one payer, most hospitals are funded by global budgets, which actually sees patients as costs leading to a budget.”
Virtual health care is becoming more prevalent in Canada, which might provide some relief, says Barua. Another survey showed that 62 per cent of Canadians are comfortable accessing this method.
The COVID-19 outbreak has added many new patients to the wait list, as elective surgeries are being postponed and this will only add to the problem, according to Barua.
“British Columbia’s government just released some numbers yesterday that said that about 30,000 patients’ surgeries had been postponed, which have been added to a list of patients who are already waiting. It’s not just that we have to tackle the 30,000 new patients, but I think in combination that it’s about 90,000 patients who are now on the waiting list, and that’s going to take almost two years to get through that and get back to normalcy.”