Analysis: Year-long wait lists for surgery rise by more than 5 times

Total climbs from 3,701 in March 2020 to 19,045 in February 2021.

Aaron Derfel, Montreal Gazette 4 minute read June 10, 2021

An empty operating room. Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette files

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of Quebecers waiting at least a year for surgery has more than quintupled, according to the latest Health Ministry data.

In March 2020, the total was 3,701 and by the end of February (the most recent period available) the figure had soared to 19,045 Quebecers — and up by more than 2,000 since the Montreal Gazette last reported on this issue nearly three months ago.

Although Health Minister Christian Dubé has made reducing these wait lists a priority, the latest stats suggest this has been more challenging than expected.

“It’s unacceptable,” Pierre Hurteau, vice-president of the Conseil pour la protection des malades, said on Wednesday.

“There are people who have died not from COVID but who have died from other causes because they didn’t receive the necessary care.”

Hurteau was alluding to a Quebec Health Ministry policy known in French as délestage, or purposely ramping down elective surgeries and other clinical activities during the first and second waves of the pandemic. The government pursued délestage aggressively last spring to protect acute-care hospitals in anticipation of a wave of COVID-19 cases.

Those cases instead hit long-term care centres. During the second and especially third waves in January, hospitals outside Montreal were hit with COVID-19 hospitalizations and the government again activated délestage, causing a backlog of nearly 148,000 surgeries by March 31 — about 33,000 more than before the pandemic.

Shortly after he was appointed health minister last June, Dubé created a new category of statistics on the ministry’s website, entitled, “Portrait of the COVID-19 situation” — effectively attributing a certain number of year-long waits for surgery to the pandemic.

The ministry data reveals that the number of people waiting at least a year for surgery has risen in nearly every region of the province and in every fiscal period. The number of Montrealers in that category stood at 7,363 at the end of February, up from 1,793 at the end of March 2020. (The breakdown, however, did not provide figures on the type of surgery.)

Year-long waits for surgery

In recent months, Dubé has often spoken publicly about the province’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. As of Tuesday, 66.9 per cent of Quebec’s population had received at least one dose, the highest rate among provinces. The government is now ramping up second shots.

In contrast, Dubé hasn’t discussed surgical wait lists as much at news conferences. However, Marjaurie Côté-Boileau, Dubé’s press attaché, insisted the minister is concerned about the surgical backlog.

“The waiting list for surgeries in Quebec is one of … Dubé’s top priorities,” she said in a statement.

Côté-Boileau contended the mass vaccination campaign has indirectly helped “Dubé succeed in the resumption of surgeries in Quebec despite the presence of COVID-19. Already, the postponement of surgeries has been reduced to 11 per cent in comparison with a rate of 50 per cent at the height of the pandemic.”

“Our first objective is to return to the pre-pandemic level — 115,000 non-urgent surgeries pending,” she added. “We want medical staff to (go on their vacations) this summer, even with the pandemic continuing in Quebec.”

Dubé is expected to make public more details on the subject by the end of the week.

Still, not all the news about surgical wait times has been negative. Those waiting for cancer surgery beyond the medically acceptable limit of 57 days dipped from 14 per cent at the end of January to 12 per cent by the end of March.

“There has been an acceleration of cancer surgeries,” confirmed Dr. Gerald Batist, director of the Segal Cancer Centre at the Jewish General Hospital.

“The OR schedules are open. We don’t have a summer slowdown, so we’re operating at a higher rate at this time of the year than normally.”

“Six months ago, everything was delayed, and some of them (especially gynecologic cancers) were advanced and got worse and we have accumulating data on that,” Batist added. “But now things are flowing much more normally.”

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