Failing to get to the heart of the matter Uninformed health minister’s empty promises no help to Manitobans waiting for less-urgent cardiac surgery

Wait times for elective heart surgery in Manitoba have ballooned. They are now quadruple what they were when hospitals began cancelling surgeries last year during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Opinion

Wait times for elective heart surgery in Manitoba have ballooned. They are now quadruple what they were when hospitals began cancelling surgeries last year during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s unclear when that backlog will be reduced. Cardiac surgery has not been identified as a priority by the province’s diagnostic and surgical wait-time task force. When asked several times over the past week when targets would be established to reduce wait times for all surgeries — many of which have grown dramatically during the pandemic to free up staff and space for COVID-19 patients — no one from government, including Health Minister Audrey Gordon, has provided a straight answer.

That’s a tough pill to swallow for any Manitoban on a surgical or diagnostic waiting list. It’s particularly horrific for anyone with a serious heart condition.

Cardiac surgeries are categorized into three levels of urgency. Level 1: critically ill patients who require surgery within one to 14 days. Level 2: patients with a significant heart problem who need surgery within 15-42 days. And Level 3: stable cardiac patients who need bypass surgery within 43-180 days.

Manitoba’s health-care system does a relatively good job of treating its most-urgent patients, even during a crisis like the pandemic. It’s the less-urgent, or “elective,” patients that tend to fall by the wayside. There is danger in that: the longer elective patients wait for care, the more serious and complicated their conditions can become.

Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press Files
An empty operating room in St. Boniface Hospital. Provincial health officials estimate Manitoba’s total surgical backlog to include between 25,000 and 30,000 patients but advocacy group Doctors Manitoba puts that number closer to 56,000.

The median wait time for Level 1 bypass surgery patients was five days in February, according to the most recent data from Manitoba Health. It’s been largely unchanged throughout the pandemic and remains well within the two-week benchmark. The wait for Level 2 patients in February was 30 days, also within the benchmark.

However, the median wait time for non-urgent cardiac patients has skyrocketed. It has gone from 48 days in June to 209 days in February. It is now well beyond the benchmark of 43-180 days.

Other than a vague commitment to increase surgical slates over the summer (which would require some nurses to give up summer vacations), the province has no specific plan to reduce cardiac surgery wait times. While some initiatives have been announced to increase orthopedic, cataract and spine-injury surgeries, the task force has been silent on heart procedures.

When asked again this week when her government plans to set wait-time targets for all surgeries, including cardiac, Gordon’s responses were, as usual, confusing and contradictory.

The minister said she plans to establish wait-time targets “very quickly.” However, she also suggested that may not happen until a new wait-time information management system is up and running, which won’t be available until late summer at the earliest (possibly not until the end of the year, according to task-force officials).

Health Minister Audrey Gordon plans to engage her constituents in parks and open spaces this summer, offering ‘sofa conversations’ to Southdale residents. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

“Once we have that information, we will be able to set some targets and look at CIHI (Canadian Institute for Health Information) data and what the averages are across the country,” said Gordon. “For example, if we get that kind of information on cardiac (surgeries), we want to make it available.”

In fact, wait-time data for cardiac surgery is already available. Manitoba Health has been publishing it online for over a decade. It’s also available for hip and knee and cataract surgeries, as well as for many diagnostic procedures. There’s no reason why a plan to reduce wait times with specific targets can’t be established now.

“I can’t give you a deadline date for every single surgery,” said Gordon.

Nobody is asking for a “deadline” on all surgeries. What people want is an action plan that includes targets so progress can be measured, including for cardiac care. There seems to be no urgency to provide that. Most of the initiatives announced by Gordon and her task force, including expanding orthopedic surgery at Concordia Hospital, won’t have an impact on wait times until next year at the earliest.

When questioned further on why targets can’t be established now, Gordon said they might be, but she wasn’t sure.

“I’m not saying that we won’t,” she said. “I’m in discussions with the task-force members on that now.”

That’s small comfort for the tens of thousands of Manitobans languishing on 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.

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