A new study reports at least 1,480 people using Canada’s socialized health care system died while they remained on waiting lists for surgery that would have enhanced or prolonged their lives.
The health care organizations reviewed for the study represent less than half the country’s population, so the full number might be much higher.
Canadian think tank SecondStreet.org determined the figure by reviewing the number of surgeries that were canceled at 50 large hospitals and regions because the patient died, the report states.
Hospitals do not normally compile such data, so the researchers had to request the numbers through a freedom of information request.
“Government requires businesses to report even minor workplace accidents, such as cases where an employee is bruised at work,” said Colin Craig, president of SecondStreet.org., in a press release. “Yet, we found nearly 1,500 cases of patients dying while waiting for care and governments don’t even report the more egregious cases publicly.”
Waiting Eight Years
Reviewing data from 2018 and 2019, SecondStreet.org found the deceased patients had been on waiting lists for widely varying periods of less than one month to more than eight years. The surgeries ranged from potentially lifesaving ones, such as cardiac surgery, to procedures that could enhance a patient’s life, such as operations to repair knees or remove cataracts.
A Commonwealth Fund International Health Policy Survey of 2016 showed results supporting those of the new study. The 2016 study found 18 percent of Canadians waited four months or longer for elective or non-emergency surgery, highest among 10 industrialized nations, including Australia, Sweden, the U.K., and the United States. In that same survey, 30 percent of Canadians reported they had waited two months or longer to see a specialist.
The United States can learn much from Canada’s experience, says Craig.
“When governments essentially have a monopoly over health care, as they do in Canada, that puts politicians in a position to ration how much health care to provide to the public,” Craig told Health Care News. “Ultimately, some people will be left out: some dying, while others spend their final years suffering. It’s quite sad.”
Private Health Care Banned
Many countries have government-paid health care, but Canada is unique in banning private health care services. Laws prevent private organizations from offering anything from quick MRIs to dental, optometry, physical therapy, and chiropractic services.
“There are many great doctors, nurses, and staff who work in Canada’s health care system, and many people have positive experiences,” said Craig. “But studies show that overall, we could be doing a lot better if the structure of our system was reformed. A monopolistic structure that bans competition is not the way to go.”
SecondStreet.org has been tracking Canada’s burgeoning health care tourism business, serviced by travel agencies, for example, that do nothing other than find customers health care services in other countries and make the travel arrangements. In 2017, Canadians made more than 217,500 trips out of the country for medical reasons, according to the organization.
Waiting lines occur because funding for health care is predetermined by the government. Hospitals are allotted set amounts of money, and if demand exceeds the financial resources for a particular year, the patient is placed on a waiting list.
Canada’s provincial governments have little knowledge of unmet demand because they fail to investigate the problem fully, states the report. “While governments often disclose at least some data on the number of time patients spend waiting for various treatments, details about patient suffering due to long waiting lists are few and far between.”
‘It’s Quite Maddening’
The report recommends more diligent reporting on waiting lists for surgery, similar to the reporting required of many private industries.
“Governments disclose even the most trivial of health violations in the restaurant industry,” states the report, citing an example of a restaurant shut down for failing to register properly before remodeling.
The report also calls for Health care organizations to report the name of the procedure, the wait time, when the recommendation for the procedure was made, how long it took for diagnostic work, and consequences from the waiting, such as pain medication, mental health [effects], and loss of mobility.”
“Greater disclosure would help policymakers identify problem areas within the system,” said Craig. “Further, it would draw more attention to the very real problem that many patients are suffering due to our rationed health care model.
“Just imagine spending the final year or two of your life largely stuck in your apartment and living in pain because you’re waiting for hip surgery from the government,” said Craig. “At the same time, the government has essentially outlawed private clinics from providing the surgery you need. It’s quite maddening.”
AnneMarie Schieber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor of Health Care News.
Colin Craig, “Policy Brief: Died on a Waiting List,” SecondStreet.org, December 2020: https://www.secondstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Policy-Brief-Died-on-a-waiting-list.pdf