Don’t look now, but Health Minister Audrey Gordon is going to try to pull a rabbit out of her hat.
On Wednesday, Gordon kept her promise to make a major announcement about surgical and diagnostic backlogs but failed profoundly and repeatedly during that announcement to provide anything that even remotely looked like an urgent response.
‘We need to make sure we get this right’: surgery backlog task force arrives with no timelineClick to Expand
Posted: 12:50 PM Dec. 8, 2021
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.
Gordon launched a task force of health-care professionals to advise government on "innovative solutions" to the chronic backlog of important medical procedures. However, in terms of specific and immediate action on what has become a health-care emergency, there was almost nothing.
No specific pledges to provide additional financial resources to remove the cap on certain procedures. No specifics on whether Manitobans will be compensated if they choose to pursue surgical procedures in other jurisdictions. And perhaps most importantly, no deadline for returning the wait lists to pre-pandemic levels.
Gordon actually spent the first 10 minutes of the news conference celebrating the modest steps her government took last year to contract out small numbers of surgical and diagnostic procedures to a handful of private-sector providers. "While good progress has been achieved, there is more work to do," she said.
We in the news media know that Gordon knows that government’s initial response to the pandemic-related procedure backlog has been a spectacular failure, largely because we remind her at almost every news conference. It certainly helps our efforts that Doctors Manitoba is providing weekly updates of the backlog in surgery and diagnostics that has grown to more than 150,000 procedures.
More evidence of the triumph of public relations over action plan? Gordon outlined a "five-point" strategy that includes the creation of a centralized information management system to track wait-list information, efforts to include physicians to do as many procedures as possible within the scope of their practices, monthly updates from the task force and identifying patients who are healthy enough to travel to seek treatment out of province.
There is a limit to what private clinics can do, given that there are limited numbers of nurses and other health–care professionals necessary to perform these procedures.
Stuff that should have — could have — been done years ago.
Gordon also promised to look for private-sector partners to take up the slack from the public system. It is on this point that Gordon’s task force will find its greatest challenge.
Outpatient surgical procedures have been performed at private clinics for many years now to augment what is done in the public system. However, there is a limit to what private clinics can do, given that there are limited numbers of nurses and other health-care professionals necessary to perform these procedures.
Shifting procedures to private clinics could, in theory, start to drain nurses and other staff away from the public system. The bottom line would see a lot more business shifted to private clinics without a meaningful increase in the total number of procedures performed.
The trick will be to see how quickly the task force can adjust the approach we take to each procedure in the hope that we can do more with existing staffing and for roughly the same amount of money. It has been done before.
Over the years, the province has used facilities such as the Pan Am Clinic to stress test the cost per procedure of certain priority surgeries. Efficiencies were identified, allowing the system to squeeze more procedures out of the same total amount of funding.
Whether that can be done now — on a larger scale while still navigating the teeth of a pandemic — is anyone’s guess. But the performance of this government on the health-care file over the past five years is not a cause for optimism.
Manitoba has boxed itself into a very tight corner during the pandemic and it’s not clear that we can squeeze more capacity out of a system that has itself been squeezed fiscally over the last five years.
Poorly delivered reforms (ER closures in Winnipeg) along with a tight rein on annual funding increases have left the health-care system chronically short-staffed and bereft of innovations to do more for less or the same. Combine pre-pandemic mismanagement with an alarmingly lax response to the fourth wave of the crisis, and you have the conditions for a public-health catastrophe.
We are, in some ways, better prepared now than in previous waves thanks to government’s insistence on maintaining the indoor mask mandate and requiring full vaccination status to visit certain places and engage in certain activities. The Tory government also deserves credit for its vaccination effort which, outside of one region, has been successful.
Our salvation can come only from a two–pronged approach: unleash an urgent plan to reduce surgical and diagnostic backlogs while concurrently introducing aggressive measures to control the spread of the virus through mostly unvaccinated populations.
Now, however, as the fourth wave is starting to erode the effectiveness of those positive measures, the government is loath to take any aggressive steps to protect the health-care system.
All that puts the province right about where it should be: caught between a rock and a hard, ugly pandemic prognosis.
Our salvation can come only from a two-pronged approach: unleash an urgent plan to reduce surgical and diagnostic backlogs while concurrently introducing aggressive measures to control the spread of the virus through mostly unvaccinated populations.
Trying to do one without the other is as pointless as it is impossible, a point that Gordon needs to acknowledge.
The health minister in an awful situation.
She is searching desperately in the dark recesses of her top hat for that magic rabbit, seemingly unaware the budget for rabbits was cut some time ago.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.