Opinion

Wait times for hip and knee surgery jumped 21 per cent in March, according to new data released this week by Manitoba Health. It’s further evidence the province still has a long way to go before it can claim it’s clearing up surgical backlogs compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wait times for hip and knee surgery jumped 21 per cent in March, according to new data released this week by Manitoba Health. It’s further evidence the province still has a long way to go before it can claim it’s clearing up surgical backlogs compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The median wait time for hip and knee surgeries in Manitoba was 34 weeks in March, up from 28 weeks in February. The provincewide wait time, which includes data from three regional health authorities (including Winnipeg) peaked in November at 40 weeks.

As usual, wait times vary by hospital and region. Hip and knee wait times increased at Concordia Hospital, but fell at Grace Hospital and Brandon Regional Health Centre.

When broken down by procedure, the wait time for total hip replacement surgery in Winnipeg fell to 24 weeks. However, the wait for knee replacement surgery shot up to 40 weeks from 34 weeks in Winnipeg. (Manitoba Health doesn’t provide provincial averages for hip and knee surgeries separately.)

The Stefanson government’s diagnostic and surgical recovery task force has not published any wait time data since it was struck in December.

Task force officials have said they are waiting for the launch of a central wait time management system later this year to publish such information. In the meantime, the only source of wait time data for surgeries and diagnostic procedures is the limited amount posted online by Manitoba Health.

What it shows is wait times for some procedures are rising, while others are falling.

The wait time for cataract surgery at Western Surgery Centre in Winnipeg, for example, was nine weeks in March, up from eight weeks the previous month. At Misericordia Health Centre, it has remained steady at 16 weeks.

The wait time for non-urgent bypass heart surgery has dropped to 63 days from a peak of 209 days in February. However, the wait time for all cardiac surgery has increased to 70 days from 38.

What the data do not reveal is what the longest wait times are for these procedures. Median wait times represent the halfway point between shortest and longest.

What the data do not reveal is what the longest wait times are for these procedures. Median wait times represent the halfway point between shortest and longest.

The 90th percentile wait times (the longest for nine out of 10 patients) provide a more realistic picture of how long some people are waiting. However, Manitoba Health doesn’t publish those.

While the Manitoba Health data provides the public with some useful information, it’s not current. Most Manitobans probably want to know what wait times are today, not what they were more than a month ago.

One of the reasons wait times may be on the rise again is because of the pent-up demand for surgeries during the pandemic.

Thousands of surgeries were cancelled over the past two years to accommodate the influx of COVID-19 patients in hospital. Now that most redeployed staff are returning to their surgical wards, surgeons are able to book more procedures again, which could cause wait times to rise.

It’s unclear how much capacity the system has to reduce those backlogs or how long it will take to bring down wait times. The province’s task force has not provided any projections.

Still, it’s unclear how much capacity the system has to reduce those backlogs or how long it will take to bring down wait times. The province’s task force has not provided any projections.

A plan announced in March to add orthopedic surgery capacity at Concordia Hospital is not expected to be in operation until the end of the year. No projections have been released to show what impact that additional capacity may have on wait times.

Meanwhile, the wait time for an MRI in March increased to 24 weeks provincewide, up from 23 weeks the previous month. It’s the highest it’s been since May 2021.

Like surgeries, MRI wait times differ by hospital. The largest increase was at Selkirk & District General Hospital, jumping to 23 weeks in March from 17 the previous month. It fell at Dauphin Regional Health Centre to 27 weeks from 32.

Appointing a task force to reduce wait times is useless if they’re not providing the public with detailed updates and long–term targets.

The wait time for CT scans provincewide was 17 weeks in March, down from 18 the previous month.

The longer it takes to access diagnostic tests such as MRIs or CT scans, the more time it takes for doctors to recommend treatment plans for their patients.

Appointing a task force to reduce wait times is useless if they’re not providing the public with detailed updates and long-term targets.

All we know at this point is wait times are rising in many areas and the province doesn’t seem to have a plan to address the issue.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.