Ontario’s next government faces a backlog of 1 million surgeries. Here’s one group’s prescription

Christopher Christin is looking forward to finally getting his hip replaced in mid-June after a year of suffering worsening pain while on a waiting list for surgery..

The operation should allow the Ottawa retiree to return to the walks, bike rides and exercises he was forced to stop. He’s also hoping it’ll end years of dealing with a health-care system that, even before the pandemic, didn’t always make it easy for him to get help.

“I’ve waited approximately five years, but that has a lot to do with the previous doctors, finding the right doctor to do the operation, and COVID,” said Christin, 68.

Ontarians like Christin have been navigating a health-care system that the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) says was strained even before COVID-19, and has been pushed into a crisis because of it. During the provincial election campaign, the OMA says parties need to commit to clearing a pandemic backlog of almost 22 million health-care services — which includes one million surgeries — to keep things from worsening even further.

“We did the best we could with what we had,” said Dr. Rose Zacharias, president of the OMA, which represents 43,000 physicians, medical students and retired physicians. 

“We need to prepare better — invest in a public health strategy — so the next time crisis comes around, we know how to better deal with it. Ontarians paid too high a price.”

‘We’ve lost 6 years of our life’

Zacharias says the backlog in services includes preventative care and cancer screenings, diagnostic tests such as MRIs and CT scans, and medical treatments and surgeries.

Not only have people been waiting to get seen by professionals, but the delay has also worsened many patients’ conditions by the time they finally get their foot in the door, she says.

“Plus, piled on top of that is the mental duress of carrying the burden of a physical ailment,” said Zacharias.

Christin’s wife, Diane, says she was his number one advocate in trying to find him help. She says it was frustrating having to watch her husband’s health deteriorate, when a surgery years ago could have prevented that.

“We’ve lost six years of our life,” she said.

“He can’t travel with me. We can’t go anywhere, we can’t do anything. Other than COVID, our life is on hold waiting for this to happen.”

A patient is readied for surgery at Toronto’s North York General Hospital. For the past two years, almost every aspect of working in a hospital, including surgery, has been affected by COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Sandra Thwaites, 67, is one of thousands of Ontario patients who’ve had surgeries scheduled and repeatedly postponed 

“I was very upset that I couldn’t even have a date, and then, if necessary, somebody could cancel that,” said Thwaites, who added she’s waited two years for cataract surgery that she was told would be life-changing.

After three rescheduled surgery dates, the Ottawa resident got her first eye operation done on May 16, and has a tentative date of June 6 for her other eye. 

Ahead of election day on Jun. 2, Thwaites says parties need to work hard to explain to voters why public health care was allowed to erode over time to this point, going beyond the hallway health care that parties previously promised they would fix.

“I believe that health care is kind of what sets Canada apart from many other countries. It feels like we’re just losing that, or we’ve lost it.”

A prescription for Ontario’s health system

Months ahead of the election, the OMA released a five-point plan to help inform the new provincial government what’s needed to help the public health-care system recover after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zacharias says the association is calling on the incoming government to:

  • Invest money for staff, infrastructure and a streamlined system to reduce wait times and service backlogs. 
  • Expand mental health and addiction services.
  • Improve and expand home and other community care to reduce reliance on hospitals and long-term care.
  • Strengthen public health and pandemic preparedness.
  • Give every patient a team of health-care providers that can interact digitally, as there are 1.3 million Ontarians who currently don’t have a family doctor.

What the parties are promising

Each political party has outlined specific commitments to tackle the surgical backlog.

According to April’s pre-election budget, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives say they’ll invest an additional $3.3 billion in hospitals for 2022–23. This additional funding would include $300 million for delays in surgery and diagnostic imaging.

The Ontario Liberal Party’s platform says it will establish maximum wait times for surgeries and return to pre-pandemic wait times by the end of 2022, and clear the wait lists with a $1 billion investment in public health care to help hospitals operate “significantly above” pre-pandemic volumes, including into evenings and weekends.

The NDP says it will identify and publicize the number of delayed procedures and publish regular progress reports, expand operating room hours over the evenings and weekends to increase hospital capacity, launch a hiring blitz for health-care workers, and create a centralized referral system, all “without privatizing our health-care system.”

The Green Party of Ontario says it will increase baseline funding for hospitals, hire more health-care professionals, help retain existing workers with wage increases, and work with the federal government to provide surge funding to reduce the backlog in surgeries, imaging and other services.

This election, the OMA has graded each party on an 18-point system on how closely their platforms align with its plan. The Ontario Greens rank last at nine points, the Liberals and the PCs second at 10 points, and NDP first at 11 points.

“I’m very confident in our prescription. As far as the confidence of implementation … time will tell,” said Zacharias.

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