Opinion

Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon and her wait time task force say they have no idea when hospitals will be able to reduce surgical and diagnostic backlogs because they don’t know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.

Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon and her wait time task force say they have no idea when hospitals will be able to reduce surgical and diagnostic backlogs because they don’t know when the COVID-19 pandemic will end.

That’s a cop out.

The diagnostic and surgical recovery task force, unveiled by Gordon in December, gave its first public update Wednesday. Its mandate is to reduce wait times for procedures such as orthopedic and cataract surgeries, endoscopies and diagnostic testing.

The group’s immediate focus is to find short-term solutions to alleviate growing backlogs caused by the pandemic. The long-term plan is to build capacity in a system that has historically been hampered by staff shortages and budget constraints.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Health Minister Audrey Gordon (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The task force has proposed a few minor solutions, including plans to contract out a small number of spinal surgeries to a clinic in Fargo, N.D. No patients have been booked yet because the U.S. clinic has its own pandemic-related challenges.

Meanwhile, some gynecological surgeries will be performed at a local private clinic beginning in February, to help with a backlog of 3,000 procedures.

The task force didn’t have much to report beyond that. (The province plans to hire 13 more anesthesia clinical assistants over three years and hopes to recruit more surgeons.)

There are no targets, no timelines, and no specifics on how the province plans to tackle backlogs in orthopedic and cataract surgeries.

There are no targets, no timelines, and no specifics on how the province plans to tackle backlogs in orthopedic and cataract surgeries.

There are about 9,000 people waiting for hip and knee surgeries (Manitoba normally does about 5,000 such procedures a year). Approximately 10,000 are on the wait list for cataract surgery (around 13,000 procedures were done over the past year, according to the most recent online data).

Another 10,000 Manitobans are waiting for endoscopies. Some 220 are waiting for cardiac surgery (the pre-pandemic wait list is usually about 80 or 90).

The median wait time for an MRI is about four months (officials say that’s due to a shortage of MRI machines in Winnipeg). The task force didn’t have specifics on ultrasound wait times, but said delays for the scans are "excessive."

The province provides the public with very little information about hospital wait times, which makes it difficult — if not impossible — to track the task force’s progress. There is some limited data posted online, but it’s outdated and incomplete.

The province provides the public with very little information about hospital wait times, which makes it difficult ‐ if not impossible ‐ to track the task force’s progress.

The province is planning to create a new surgical wait list information system and an online dashboard. But so far, government is keeping its data close to the vest.

Dr. Peter Macdonald, the task force chairman, said there are no timelines to reduce wait times because they can’t predict the impact the pandemic will have on hospital resources.

That’s a convenient excuse.

Granted, hospitals are still overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. Officials continue to use surgical beds to handle the overflow, which means inpatient surgeries are still being cancelled. (Outpatient surgeries have been increased, which is good news.)

The province is planning to create a new surgical wait list information system and an online dashboard. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The province is planning to create a new surgical wait list information system and an online dashboard. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

It didn’t help that Gordon and her boss, Premier Heather Stefanson, rejected calls in December to impose more stringent public health measures to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

Doing so would have alleviated pressure on hospitals and reduced the need to cancel more surgeries. Failure to do so has made the task force’s job more difficult (and forced hospitals to transfer more Winnipeg patients to other communities).

Still, many of the wait time challenges the province faces have little, if anything, to do with the pandemic. Lengthy waits for surgeries and diagnostic testing are mostly the result of staffing shortages, a lack of space and equipment, and restrictive budgets that force hospitals to ration care. Those can only be solved through long-term funding commitments and detailed planning — which the province has yet to release.

Lengthy waits for surgeries and diagnostic testing are mostly the result of staffing shortages, a lack of space and equipment, and restrictive budgets.

There’s no reason that level of planning, including timelines and expected outcomes, can’t be drawn up now to begin the process. Government doesn’t have to wait for the end of the pandemic to set benchmarks and commit the required funding.

It’s up to the minister to provide that leadership. Using the pandemic as an excuse for inaction is lazy.

The longer Gordon and Stefanson put this off, the more Manitobans will suffer in pain and misery on heath-care wait lists.

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.