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Monday, September 9, 2013

Waiting for care: Bad for the economy

Dr. Anna Reid,
President, Canadian Medical Association

In its most recent report, the Wait Time Alliance has said many Canadians are still waiting too long to access a wide range of necessary medical care (See Moreover, Canadians experience longer waits to access care than citizens of most other industrialized countries. These lengthy waits not only apply to specialty care but also to access primary care and to be seen in the emergency department.

Wait times within provinces and among populations can vary significantly. For example, low-income patients experience more problems accessing primary care and some types of specialty care than those with high incomes. Your wait depends on where you live, your income, and your gender.

Lengthy waits can have serious health consequences. We know that for some conditions, such as cancer, heart disease and mental health, the longer the wait for treatment, the worse the health outcome. There is also the mental anguish and uncertainty associated with waiting for necessary care.

The impact goes beyond the patient’s health. For individuals and their families, a lengthy wait can mean a substantial loss of income, particularly if they do not have insurance to cover this period of economic inactivity. A longer wait can also mean greater deterioration and a longer recovery time for the patient, leading to a further loss of income.

The substantive financial costs of lengthy waits for both patients and Canada’s economy have been previously documented. A study prepared by The Centre for Spatial Economics for the CMA and the British Columbia Medical Association calculated the economic impact of excess wait times for five procedures (hip and knee replacement surgery, MRIs, coronary artery bypass graft surgery and cataract surgery) in all 10 provinces. It found that, in addition to the obvious emotional, physical and financial toll endured by patients and their families, lengthy waits for these medical treatments cost Canada’s economy an estimated $14.8 billion overall in 2007 in reduced economic activity. This took a $4.4 billion chunk out of federal and provincial government revenues. Keep in mind that this study only examined a limited number of procedures and therefore underestimates the full cost of waiting that Canadians experience for a wider range of services.

Lengthy wait times don’t need to be a given. A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) identifies a number of strategies other countries have found successful in reducing medical wait times ( These include changing how we fund hospitals, offering wait-time guarantees with teeth, and making use of information technologies to better track and manage patient wait times. As Dr. Chris Simpson, Chair of the Wait Time Alliance recently stated, additional funding is not the sole solution to achieving shorter wait times. Structural change is necessary alongside the funding if we are to reduce wait times across the full continuum of care on a sustained basis. 

* Watch the Health Council of Canada's video series on Wait Times.

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