Members of a new provincial task force say no stone will be left unturned in expediting care for an estimated 30,000 people whose surgeries have been delayed owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They could not, however, provide a timeline for clearing the massive backlog.
Health Minister Audrey Gordon revealed the steering committee for the "diagnostic and surgical recovery task force" Wednesday at the Manitoba Legislative Building.
"I know that these stories of delayed care touch each and every one of us," Gordon told reporters. "They’re frightening for us and our loved ones."
Kim Riddell has been waiting for surgery for spinal stenosis since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Riddell said in addition to pain and balance problems, she cannot return to work until she undergoes surgery.
She said she wanted the task force report on specific progress towards reducing the backlog and offer a clear timeline for when she will be next in queue.
"It’s personal, it’s my life," said Riddell, who spoke to reporters following the announcement.
"Without a specific targeted date, and targeted funds… then it doesn’t help me at all."
The task force will be chaired by Dr. Peter MacDonald, who has served as head of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Manitoba’s Max Rady College of Medicine since 2007.
"We cannot promise that we’ll deliver all the answers, but we can promise that we’ll work very hard and leave no stone unturned," MacDonald said.
"This is a critical time in the history of our health care in our province and we need to make sure we get this right."
Matthew Lister, a health-care administrator from Ontario specializing in high reliability health services and systems, was selected as the task force project team director.
He said the project team is still in development but a core group of people have been conducting consultations with health-care providers since October.
A timeline to clear the surgical backlog, which provincial officials estimate to be between 25,000 and 30,000 patients, could come early next year, when the task force is expected to provide its first progress report, Lister said.
"I can’t, at this point, speak to a specific timeline," he said. "We’re still gathering a lot of information from our front-line staff and from different units."
According to the task force, it is still unclear exactly how many surgeries and diagnostic procedures have been delayed; as a first order of business, the task force is establishing an information management system specific to their needs to guide work going forward.
Steering committee member Dr. Ed Buchel, head of surgery with Shared Health, said the task force’s goal is to restore surgical services to pre-pandemic baselines early in the new year.
Buchel said the task force will build incrementally on current efforts to maintain surgical and diagnostic services amid the pandemic — which include contracting work to external service providers, developing alternate care models and hiring more nurses.
"This is not the start point of the work that’s been done, this is a consolidation, so that we can get more support from our government, from experts that help us co-ordinate the care that we’re desperately trying to give," Buchel said.
"We will deliver staff, we will deliver space so that we can deliver surgery in our province."
“We will deliver staff, we will deliver space so that we can deliver surgery in our province.” – Steering committee member Dr. Ed Buchel
No new commitments toward recruiting health-care staff or for additional funding were announced Wednesday.
The Manitoba government previously announced $50 million to address surgical and diagnostic backlogs; so far, $8.8 million has been spent to deliver more than 9,000 procedures through third-party providers, including cardiac and hernia surgeries and endoscopies.
"If it requires more funding, we are open as a government to doing that, to providing the funds to make sure that this backlog is cleared," Gordon said.
Some surgical patients may also be transferred out of province if they are not able to get their procedure done in Manitoba in a timely fashion and if continuing to wait would lead to worse health outcomes, Buchel said.
However, there are no plans at this time to send "routine cases" that are backlogged out of province and the system is trying "very hard" not to send heart and brain surgery patients out of province, he noted.
In a statement, Doctors Manitoba said it was encouraged by the task force’s mandate and composition. The physicians association first called for the creation of a task force six months ago, and estimates the total backlog to include more than 152,000 surgical and diagnostic cases.
"Assuming the task force has access to the funding and support it needs, we believe it can get the job done," the advocacy group said. "What we did not hear today is how long it will take to clear this backlog. Manitobans need to know how long their wait will be."
“What we did not hear today is how long it will take to clear this backlog. Manitobans need to know how long their wait will be.” – Doctors Manitoba
Meanwhile, the union representing workers who perform the bulk of diagnostic procedures and provide post-operative rehabilitation services said it was concerned there was no commitment to address staffing shortages.
"We need allied health staffing to be prioritized or else any plans to address the backlog will not be effective and put Manitobans at risk," Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals president Bob Moroz said.
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the slow pace of the government and lack of spending to address the surgical and diagnostic delays has caused frustration for Manitobans whose lives are being put on hold as they wait for treatment.
"We heard all of the fanfare leading up to today, and then there’s no actual announcement of real action," Kinew said. "It’s just another plan to have a plan."
— with files from Dylan Robertson
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.