Quebec wait lists for cancer and other surgery set record highs — again

‘There are probably a lot of people dying on these wait lists,’ said patient-rights advocate Paul Brunet

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Quebec has again set two dubious records in health care: highest number of people waiting for non-urgent surgery and highest number of patients in need of cancer operations, according to the latest government data.

As of Oct. 10, the most recent date for which data is available, nearly 164,000 Quebecers were on wait lists for elective surgery, up by about 2,000 since the start of the year and by more than 48,000 since January 2020. As for cancer surgery, the wait list has swelled to 4,401 from 4,160 since the beginning of the year.

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“There are probably a lot of people dying on these wait lists,” said patient-rights advocate Paul Brunet, executive director of the Conseil pour la protection des malades. “These are record highs.”

Source: Quebec Health Ministry
Source: Quebec Health Ministry

Health Minister Christian Dubé last week blamed nurses who are on rotating strikes for indirectly lengthening surgical wait lists, estimating 500 operations have been postponed for each strike day. If Dubé’s estimate proves accurate, the wait list for non-urgent operations may have jumped by another 4,000.

Still, Brunet criticized Dubé for pointing the finger at nurses, saying the government could have done more to cut wait lists for surgery.

“The government is trying to put more pressure on the people who are on strike,” Brunet said. “It’s unfair, because this is a legal strike. This is the future of the public health system we’re talking about. If you don’t improve the working conditions of these people, they’re going to continue leaving the system.”

Non-urgent operations include hip and joint replacements as well as cataract surgery, among other procedures. Of the nearly 164,000 Quebecers in need of such operations, more than 48,000 were waiting at least half a year. For many of these individuals, each passing month adds to their pain and hardship.

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Among oncology patients, 616 were waiting longer than the medically acceptable time limit of 57 days, increasing the likelihood their cancer may further spread.

Source: Quebec Health Ministry
Source: Quebec Health Ministry

“Are we doing everything we can to reduce these wait lists?” Brunet asked. “Have we thought of reaching agreements with all the privately authorized clinics to do more surgeries? Have we thought of sending some patients to Ontario (for surgery)? Have we thought of going to the States, as Ms. Marois did in the 1990s?”

Brunet’s last remark alluded to a decision by Pauline Marois, who as health minister in 1999 sent busloads of cancer patients to Plattsburgh for radiotherapy.

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In a statement on Friday, Dubé’s press attaché took aim partly at striking nurses for the rising wait-list numbers.

“We have to be realistic: there’s no doubt that strike days have an impact on elective surgeries,” Antoine de la Durantaye said. “It’s a shame, especially when we’re already making every effort to catch up on the backlog of surgeries.”

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De la Durantaye cited a reduction in the number of patients waiting for longer than a year for their operation as proof the government is addressing the problem.

“Over the last 12 months, we reduced the number of patients waiting more than a year by 40 per cent,” he noted. “In concrete terms, we have gone from 20,743 surgeries (with wait times of more than a year) in December 2022 to 13,539 today. This is an important step in the right direction.

“Now, could things go even faster?” he asked. “The answer is yes. That’s precisely why we need (Dubé’s recently adopted health reform) to give us the levers we need to implement best practices everywhere, and stop working in silos.”

Under Dubé’s reform — known as Bill 15, “an Act to make the health and social services system more effective” — surgical wait lists will soon be managed by a new agency, Santé Québec. But critics charge the reform is more structural than anything else, and will not solve the problem of the shortage of nurses and other specialists who are desperately needed to reduce the surgical backlog.

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