There’s a reason why the Stefanson government’s diagnostic and surgical recovery task force doesn’t reveal how long people are waiting for the procedures it’s supposed to be tracking: the numbers are awful.
The task force’s new executive director, David Matear, gave Manitobans an update Thursday on the panel’s work. Like all of its updates so far, there was no data on how long Manitobans are waiting for surgeries, diagnostic tests or other procedures. The province doesn’t want people to see those statistics.
What’s becoming increasingly clear since this task force was launched in December is that its purpose is not to provide Manitobans with objective information on wait times, nor demonstrate with evidence how it’s eliminating surgical backlogs. This a political exercise meant to create the perception that it’s making progress on reducing hospital wait times.
To do that, the task force has been cherry picking "backlog" data for some diagnostic tests — the estimated number of people on a wait list — and posting it online. It shows a slight decline in the number waiting, but doesn’t reveal how long the waits are. And there is no data for surgical wait times.
It’s not that the panel doesn’t have access to reliable data — it does. A decision has been made not to release it to the public.
"We have a good idea on most procedures what the average wait time is," Dr. Peter MacDonald, the Winnipeg surgeon recruited by the government to chair the panel, said during its March update.
MacDonald also said patients are less concerned about how many people are on a wait list and more interested in how long they have to wait for a test or a surgery date. He’s right.
Backlog data, while interesting to assess overall system progress, doesn’t tell patients anything about how long they have to wait for a procedure.
"We’re starting to think that maybe we should be looking more at wait times, which is more important to the patient," MacDonald said.
If the task force is looking more at wait-time numbers, as opposed to backlog data, it isn’t sharing that information with the public.
Manitoba Health has for years provided wait-time data on its website for certain procedures, including hip and knee, cataract and cardiac surgery, as well as for diagnostic-imaging tests. It shows wait times for many of those procedures are higher than they were a year ago.
The task force could use that raw data to build its own online dashboard and provide the public with timely updates and targets on where it expects wait times to be in the future. But it hasn’t done that.
Unfortunately, Manitoba Health posts only "median" wait times, the halfway mark between shorter and longer waits. A more relevant metric is 90th-percentile wait times (the longest for nine out of 10 patients). It gives patients a more realistic time frame of how long they may have to wait. The latter is a common metric used for health-care waits across Canada. It’s also used to measure emergency room wait times in Winnipeg. That data could be extracted for surgeries and diagnostic testing, but government refuses to do so.
Even Doctors Manitoba, the physician group that’s been tracking wait lists during the pandemic, has had trouble getting data from government. In a news release issued Friday, the organization said it’s had to submit freedom of information requests to try to get data from the task force. Its own data collection shows the backlog for surgeries and diagnostics tests has increased slightly, to just over 169,000 cases.
There’s no doubt the pandemic is the chief cause of today’s lengthy waits. Surgical staff were redeployed to treat COVID-19 patients, causing tens of thousands of procedures to be cancelled or delayed. However, as part of the province’s hospital consolidation plan implemented prior to the pandemic, the net number of surgical beds also declined. That will make it more difficult to catch up. According to internal Winnipeg Regional Health Authority bed-mapping figures obtained by the Free Press, the number of net surgical beds fell from 485 in April 2016 to 460 in December 2019.
It may be one more reason the government refuses to release comprehensive and timely wait-time information.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.