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Maritimers face longest surgical wait times, far beyond national average

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All three Maritime provinces consistently grapple with lengthy healthcare wait times, but they are a stark contrast to the national average.

Nova Scotia leads the country with the longest wait times at 56.7 weeks for specialist treatment, that's followed closely by P.E.I. at 55.2 weeks and New Brunswick at 52.6 weeks.

These figures come from new statistics from the Fraser Institute's annual physician study, which shows wait times are up in Canada at record levels.

In Nova Scotia, who have the longest wait times, their numbers are down from 58.2 weeks last year, to 56.7 weeks this year.

"We actually do see an improvement in the wait times in Nova Scotia, they are actually tracking down," said Bacchus Barua, director of health policy studies at the Fraser Institute. "But unfortunately Nova Scotia still has the dubious title of having the longest wait times in Canada."

By far, all three Maritime figures surpass the national average of 27.7 weeks, while waiting for scheduled surgery, which includes procedures like orthopedics, urology, gynecology, and other elective surgeries.

A graphic from the Fraser Institute showing the wait times in Maritime provinces compared to the wait times in 1993. (Courtesy: Fraser Institute)Challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic still exist and helped create a surgical backlog in the first place, said anesthesiologist and Doctors Nova Scotia president Dr. Colin Audain.

"We fell behind because we had to close down, elective cases for quite some time," said Audain.

As the healthcare system catches up, there are still issues with illnesses like COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses that continue to impact staffing levels.

"Yesterday we had a couple of sick calls and today we had a couple more sick calls," said Audain. "We have a lot of people off at home so that they don't spread the virus in the hospital, but that makes it challenging to keep operating rooms up and running on a day-to-day basis."

Nova Scotia's Health Minister, Michelle Thompson, emphasizes efforts to reduce the surgical backlog, having completed 2,174 more surgeries this year, compared to last year.

Thompson says the province continues to make headway and says the Fraser Institute survey polls physicians and that doesn't tell the story of the progress made here.

"It was a survey of a cross-section of physicians across the survey," said Thompson. "We know our surgical waitlist is coming down."

According to the province's statistics, the surgical waitlist has decreased over the past five fiscal quarters and that includes:

  •  3,204 more Endoscopy/Cystoscopy procedures have been completed this year compared to same period last year.
  •  An additional 159 outpatient hip/knee surgeries have been completed so far this year compared to same period last year.
  •  About 200 people have been removed from the orthopedic waitlist this year.
  •  About 100 people have been removed from the Obstetrics waitlist this year.
  •  A third endoscopy room was added in Dartmouth General which has allowed an additional 125 cancer screenings to be performed each month.

Doctors Nova Scotia says staffing shortages and a lack of free hospital beds continue to be the major challenges to addressing long surgical wait times.

"But it takes time to attract people and time to train people," said Audain. "And the same is true for the physical resources which would include beds."

Premier Tim Houston has said he'll push to extend operating room hours "beyond baking hours," and it appears the province is gaining headway with that initiative.

Audain said as part of their new collective agreement with the province they have introduced a new incentive to extend operating room hours beyond the standard surgical times.

Audain said it's not mandatory to work, but it's so physicians have the option to work and complete after-hour surgical work and receive a premium pay that's equal to working emergency after-hours.

"It's something we've trying to implement over the past four or five weeks," said Audain. "It's about balancing the human resources and physical resources to see what kind of capacity there is in the system to do it."

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