Only five patients will get spinal surgery out of province in the next few weeks as part of a highly touted plan by the government to deliver tens of thousands of delayed surgeries to sick Manitobans.
Sanford Health Fargo vice-president of operations Brittany Sachdeva said a "select number" of Manitobans who need specialized spinal care will be treated at the facility, which is nearly 400 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
The Manitoba government finalized an agreement with Sanford Health to treat patients with degenerative disc disease and spinal stenosis at its centre in Fargo through a pilot program last month.
The province’s surgical and diagnostic recovery task force had said a few hundred patients could be eligible to receive their operation at Sanford.
"We expect to care for approximately five patients over the next several weeks," Sachdeva said in an emailed statement to the Free Press. Sachdeva was not made available for an interview.
The deal with Sanford was one of four pillars of the province’s plan to cut the backlog. It was announced by the task force in its first update to Manitobans in mid-January. Since then, few details about the pilot program have been made public.
Recently, the Tory government has refused to answer journalists’ questions about its agreement with Sanford, citing restrictions on government communications because there’s a byelection in progress, in Fort Whyte.
Late last week, the province’s diagnostic and surgical recovery task force quietly posted an update on its progress toward reducing the pandemic backlog, which Doctors Manitoba estimates to include more than 52,000 delayed surgeries and 109,000 delayed diagnostic tests.
The update said spinal surgery had already begun at Sanford Health with the intention to expand the pilot program. No details were provided.
A spokesman for Health Minister Audrey Gordon’s office would not reveal how many patients had travelled out of province, the total number of patients Sanford had agreed to accept, or the duration or cost of the pilot program when asked by the Free Press this week.
“I’d love to update you more on Sanford North Dakota but due to the blackout period we’re in as a result of the Fort Whyte election I cannot provide a fulsome update." — Health Minister Audrey Gordon
"As explained previously, the agreement provides for a pilot phase where a small number of patients will receive care," the spokesman said in a statement. "This process will enable both organizations to get the patient referrals and transitions in place so that this can be a safe and effective care experience."
The task force would provide updates on patient volumes and cost in future briefings, the spokesman said.
Asked Wednesday if she was satisfied by the pace and scale of the pilot program given the significant demand for spinal surgery, Gordon said she could not comment due to the byelection.
"I’d love to update you more on Sanford North Dakota but due to the blackout period we’re in as a result of the Fort Whyte election I cannot provide a fulsome update," Gordon said.
"I commit to you when the blackout is completed, we will be out with more information on that."
Critics expressed concern over the relatively small number of patients currently able to get surgery through the pilot program, calling it a "baby step" toward reducing the massive number of delayed procedures.
"For all the fanfare that the government has devoted to this topic — and we’ve got tens of thousands of Manitobans waiting in pain — to hear that there’s a pilot program for a number of individuals in the single digits, that’s a very slow start," NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.
However, Kinew said Manitobans want to receive their surgery in the province, arguing it is more cost effective and patients can count on their support system to be close by.
“For all the fanfare that the government has devoted to this topic ‐ and we’ve got tens of thousands of Manitobans waiting in pain ‐ to hear that there’s a pilot program for a number of individuals in the single digits, that’s a very slow start.” — NDP Leader Wab Kinew
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said the province must immediately address staffing shortages in the health-care system to deliver surgeries and diagnostic tests.
"Five seems like a real drop in the bucket, but the major stumbling block in all these things is usually (lack of) nurses," Lamont said.
Manitobans who have been languishing on surgical wait lists should be able to travel out of jurisdiction for their operation with the support of the provincial government, Lamont said.
At the same time, limits on the number of surgeries and procedures physicians can perform in a year need to be lifted.
"We have to be doing what we can to cut those lists," Lamont said. "They’re only making baby steps."
The province said offering spinal surgery at Sanford Health Fargo is an interim measure while the government builds capacity to perform more operations in Manitoba.
Complex, outpatient and life-threatening cases are not eligible and potential candidates must consent to undergo surgery south of the border.
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.