Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wait-time secrecy must end

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It is difficult to draw firm conclusions in Manitoba from the results of the Fraser Institute's annual survey of waiting times for appointments and treatment by specialists. The response rate from specialists here was just 18 per cent, less than one in five of all the physicians the British Columbia think-tank surveyed. But the results, as with those compiled by the publicly funded Canadian Institute of Health Research, show similarly disheartening signs.

Manitoba does relatively well for the wait times to see a specialist -- a median of 7.8 weeks. But it falls behind, nationally, when the wait time to treatment is compared. At a median of 15.4 weeks, it is six weeks longer than the national median. (That was two weeks faster than the median reported by the 2011 survey.)

The Fraser Institute believes the 18 per cent response rate from Manitoba specialists is good enough to validate the overall numbers, and it notes where their data are verifiable against those collected by CIHI, for example, they stand up. But that ignores the fact that from some groups of Manitoba specialists, none or a handful of possible responses was received.

CIHI has good data on waiting times in six specific procedures and two diagnostic tests, which a provincial agreement targeted in 2004. Manitoba does reasonably well getting people their treatment within provincially set targets, but those awaiting hip and knee surgery saw lengthy delays, and Manitoba lags behind other provinces in giving people access to MRIs.

There are many more fronts to conquer yet. Emergency-room wait times are excessively long, especially for the non-urgent cases -- where else is there to go at night and on the weekend? -- as a recent report by CIHI found. An international comparison of 11 other countries found Canada had the highest percentage of people (44 per cent) waiting four hours or more for treatment in the ER.

The money that has been poured into the system across Canada to cut wait times has seen modest achievements and the results are tenuous, requiring concentrated effort to maintain gains.

Further, the province makes minimal effort to track wait times. This is largely for the same reason the government doesn't do its own surveys of specialists to track waiting times for treatment. Politically, the results would be a headache for a government trying to convince people wait times for health care have been cut.

As long as the data are neither sought nor compiled, there is no need to acknowledge the validity of those sources attempting to do that job.

The government has attempted to expand access to family doctors by opening community health clinics. Expanded hours will give people options beyond the ER when they need care at off-hour times.

Cutting the wait times for specialist care will require looking at management of wait lists, allotment of operating-room time and perhaps concentrated efforts in high-demand speciality areas.

But that cannot, nor should not, be done in secrecy. Health Minister Theresa Oswald should conduct her own survey on wait times for specialists and publish the results.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2012 A10

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