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More than $1B needed to clear surgical backlogs: Canadian Medical Association

Consulting firm Deloitte found a backlog of 327,800 procedures across the country
The entrance sign to the Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto is seen on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. The Canadian Medical Association say it will cost $1.3 billion to clear the backlogs for eight key procedures that were put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Evan Buhler

Clearing backlogs for eight key surgical procedures put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic will require $1.3 billion in government cash, says a report commissioned by the Canadian Medical Association.

Asked by the association to detail the effect of the pandemic on Canada’s health-care system, consulting firm Deloitte found a backlog of 327,800 procedures across the country.

The report covered eight procedures: hip replacement, cataract surgery, knee replacement, MRI scans, CT scans, coronary artery bypass and breast cancer surgery.

The massive increase in COVID-19 cases packing intensive care units led hospitals to direct resources away from non-urgent surgeries toward more acute care.

Health systems lost an average of 118 days of procedure time for hip replacements on the high end of the spectrum, and an average of 46 days for breast cancer surgery on the low end.

“The pandemic has exacerbated existing problems with access to care and it will take significant efforts and commitments to rebuild the health system,” said association president Dr. Katharine Smart.

Deloitte found it would cost $1.3 billion in additional funding to return wait times for the various procedures to their pre-pandemic levels by June 2022, but noted the cost might be even higher when the effect of the fourth wave is considered.

The World Health Organization has already warned of the potentially dangerous consequences the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 could have for health care around the world.

The variant emerged in South Africa, precipitated by a spike in cases in that region.

It’s not yet known if the variant is more transmissible, or if it makes people sicker than past variants, but the WHO has told countries to brace themselves for the possibility.

The Liberal election platform promised a $6-billion injection to provincial health systems to eliminate wait lists, however provinces are leery of prescriptive funding.

The report warns the pandemic could have severe long-term consequences for Canada’s health system because of delays in procedures, diagnostics and chronic disease management, as well as the growing number of reported mental health disorders and substance use cases.

“The legacy of this pandemic — which is still ongoing — will be felt for years to come, and we must start working now to keep the backlog problem from becoming even worse,” Smart said.

The report also looked at other health effects of the pandemic, including the number of people who died for reasons unrelated to COVID-19.

“Although it is not surprising that more Canadians died in 2020 than in a typical year, the number of excess deaths was greater than can be explained by COVID-19 alone,” the report said. “While there may be several drivers of these excess deaths, delayed or missed care due to shutdowns of services and lack of sufficient capacity in overburdened health systems may be a contributing factor.”

When deaths were at their peak in September 2020, the number not related to COVID-19 was five per cent more than the expected mortality rate for a normal year, according to Deloitte’s analysis.

—Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

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