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Big-picture focus needed amid small wait time wins

Eliminating the backlog for ultrasound scans, announced last week, was a small victory for the Manitoba government. In the ongoing battle to chip away at hospital wait lists inflated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it will take any win it can.

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Opinion

Eliminating the backlog for ultrasound scans, announced last week, was a small victory for the Manitoba government. In the ongoing battle to chip away at hospital wait lists inflated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it will take any win it can.

The ultrasound backlog (number of cases added to the wait list owing to the pandemic) fell to 612 in October from 4,463 in February 2022. It dropped to zero in November.

Hospitals performed an average of 471 more scans per month in the first 11 months of last year compared with 2019, the year before the pandemic.

The result: wait times for ultrasounds are far below what they were during the height of the pandemic. The median wait time in Manitoba was seven weeks in November, after peaking at 22 weeks in May 2020.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES The ultrasound backlog fell to 612 in October from 4,463 in February 2022. It dropped to zero in November.

Wait times are longer at some individual hospitals, including in Winnipeg (where they range from 12 to 15 weeks). But overall, the wait time for an ultrasound has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels.

There have been other wins in clearing hospital backlogs in recent months, according to the province’s diagnostic and surgical recovery task force dashboard.

The backlog for cataract surgery was eliminated in September, after the number of procedures was increased at Misericordia Health Centre and the privately-owned Western Surgery Centre in Winnipeg. The cardiac surgery backlog was cut in half: to 51 cases in November from 102 in February. There was no pandemic backlog reported in 2022 for MRIs.

Wait times for other medical procedures have not fared as well.

The backlog for CT scans fell to 5,408 in September from 8,601 in February, but has since stalled.

The backlog for bone density scans, pegged at 1,385 cases, did not improve at all in 2022. Wait times for bone density tests have been climbing since last summer and remain well above pre-pandemic levels.

Eliminating pandemic backlogs does not necessarily mean wait times will fall. Backlogs are merely estimates of the excess cases that built up during the pandemic.

The biggest challenge for the province when it comes to eliminating hospital backlogs: the number of hip and knee surgery cases that piled up during the pandemic. The province made some progress in that area in early 2022, reducing the backlog to 1,140 in August from 1,557 cases in February. It hasn’t improved since.

To shrink the backlogs, hospitals have to complete more cases per month than they did prior to the pandemic. While it appears there were slightly more hip surgeries performed in 2022 than in 2019, the number of knee procedures is expected to barely reach pre-pandemic levels.

Eliminating pandemic backlogs does not necessarily mean wait times will fall. Backlogs are merely estimates of the excess cases that built up during the pandemic.

The demand for diagnostic and surgical procedures continues to climb over and above that — driven largely by a growing and ageing population. Hospitals are struggling to keep up with demand.

The median wait time for hip and knee surgeries was higher in November 2022 (33 weeks) than it was at the beginning of the year (30 weeks) and remains well above pre-pandemic levels.

Government will take the small wins when it can. But the bigger challenges in health care that remain will require more focused attention and far more resources.

The province has been sending some orthopedic patients out of province for surgeries to help reduce wait times. So far, the numbers have been small and the impact on wait times minimal.

Some local orthopedic surgeons have complained publicly and privately resources used to send patients out of province would be better spent servicing patients here. According to some — most of whom are unwilling to speak publicly on the subject for fear of reprisal — they could perform more surgeries if the province hired more support staff. (That includes more staff on medical wards and in physiotherapy for recovery.)

Some say there are options, like offering higher pay and more incentives, to increase staffing levels that government is ignoring.

Like all provinces, Manitoba is facing a national shortage of health-care professionals. However, it didn’t help hundreds of front-line staff retired or quit the public system in Winnipeg after the province’s botched hospital consolidation prior to the pandemic (or that the Progressive Conservative government cut funding to acute care hospitals during that time).

Government will take the small wins when it can. But the bigger challenges in health care that remain will require more focused attention and far more resources.

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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