Canada’s healthcare system is one in which a patient can die from literally having to wait.
That is the warning from a new study from SecondStreet.org, an upstart think tank based in Regina, the capital city in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
“Our healthcare system is largely stuck in the 1970s,” said Colin Craig, president of SecondStreet.org. “It is heavily controlled by government, and as a result, patients are suffering.”
Under Canada’s system, hospitals and clinics receive a fixed amount called a “global budget” from the government to spend on healthcare every year. To keep funds from running out, hospitals often limit the number of procedures they perform, resulting in patients ending up on waiting lists for treatment.
The waits for treatment can often last months and, in some cases, years.
Researchers at SecondStreet.org wanted to find out how many Canadians die while on a waiting list for care. To do this, they sent Freedom of Information requests to multiple government health authorities and hospitals in Canada asking for data on how many patients were removed from waiting lists due to death from April 2019 to March 2020. They released the results in late June in a study, “Died on a Waiting List.”
The results were eye-opening. Over 8,400 Canadians died while on a waiting list for treatment, including 2,256 who died waiting for surgery and 6,202 who died waiting for a diagnostic test or appointment with a specialist.
The numbers are likely an undercount, as SecondStreet.org was unable to get data from many regions and hospitals, including Quebec, Canada’s second-largest province. As a result, Craig guessed that close to one-quarter of Canada’s healthcare system was not represented in the study due to missing data.
Another problem with the data is that it mainly did not reveal to what extent the deaths were linked to the treatment for which patients waited. So, for example, SecondStreet.org could not determine if a patient waiting for bypass surgery or an echocardiogram died from a heart attack.
Surely some patients, such as those waiting for a knee replacement or cataract surgery, did not die due to not receiving treatment. But such cases, while not fatal, do reduce a patient’s quality of life by causing needless suffering.
“Nobody wants to spend their final years dealing with chronic pain or cloudy vision,” said Craig. “If you are one of those patients who is having trouble seeing in your final year or two, that would be pretty tragic.”
And in some cases, patients do die because of the wait. That happened to 18-year-old Laura Hillier of Burlington, Ontario, diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2015. She needed a bone marrow transplant, but she had to wait over seven months for the operation despite finding a donor. Juravinski Hospital, where Hillier was to have the procedure, could only perform five transplants per month, and there were 30 people ahead of Hillier on the waiting list. She died while on the waiting list on Jan. 20, 2016.
Requiring health authorities and hospitals to keep accurate data on patients who died while waiting for care and making that data public is a reform that Craig hopes SecondStreet.org’s report will facilitate.
In the meantime, he has a warning for those in the United States wanting to emulate the Canadian healthcare system.
“Canada’s system struggles and doesn’t perform well when compared to other nations,” Craig said. “I don’t understand why the United States would want to copy what we’re doing in this country.”