Canada completed nearly one million fewer surgeries yearly during COVID pandemic: report

According to a new report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, Canada performed 937,000 fewer surgeries annually during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic years.

Canada completed nearly one million fewer surgeries yearly during COVID pandemic: report
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Between March and June 2020 patients observed the most significant decreases with non-urgent surgeries cancelled or postponed as COVID became top priority.

Notably, knee replacements fell by 20%, and hip replacements fell by 11% from April 2020 to September 2022. The report also identified 92,000 fewer cataract surgeries.

Overall, Albertans had 78,000 fewer surgeries throughout the pandemic.

"Decreases in surgical volumes have resulted from many factors, including the timing and impact of COVID-19 cases and the health system responses, which included the cancellation of scheduled surgeries," reads the report.

In 2022, nearly 40% of patients who needed knee or hip replacement or cataract surgery could not receive it within the recommended time frame.

According to the report, Canada could not facilitate timely surgeries, increasing wait times since Canada declared COVID a pandemic in March 2020.

Despite rebounding surgery backlogs, experts state it will remain a considerable issue until we operate at pre-pandemic levels and address prolonged staffing shortages.

"It is encouraging to see that surgery volumes in certain provinces are nearing pre-pandemic levels," Tracy Johnson, director of health system analytics at

the Canadian Institute for Health Information, said in a release. 

"Reducing wait times is a complex challenge, and pre-pandemic surgery numbers will need to be exceeded to recover and to reduce surgical backlogs, although the findings vary across provinces and territories."

In comparing surgical data from 2019 to subsequent years, the report revealed 70% of patients requiring knee replacements received treatment within the recommended six-month period, falling to 50% during the pandemic.

In 2021, surgical waiting times increased to an average of 25.6 weeks between referral and treatment, increasing to 27.4 weeks the following year nationwide — 195% higher than 9.3 weeks in 1993 when the Fraser Institute began tracking wait times.

During the pandemic, provinces fired thousands of health-care workers across Canada for not getting the COVID jab, procuring noticeable staffing shortages among frontline health-care providers.

As of Monday, 52% of Albertan adults needing surgery fell within recommended wait times. The surgical backlog also fell to 67,186.

“As of March 27, we’re currently at an average of 115 percent of pre-pandemic surgical volumes. That means that approximately 6,000 are being done every week in Alberta,” said Alberta Health in a statement.

In January 2023, Alberta Health recorded nearly half (49.3%) of hip replacements as completed within clinically recommended wait times. Approximately 39.3% of patients requiring knee replacements also received promoted surgery.

The UCP explained it is improving access to life-saving medical surgeries by improving wait-list management, expanding the surgical workforce and working to retain the existing workforce, expanding contracting with chartered surgical facilities, and enhancing Alberta Surgical Initiative-related capital projects, among other reasons.

In January, the Alberta government pinpointed the use of independent facilities to reduce surgical backlogs as part of a new contract with AHS.

It will increase orthopedic procedures performed in the Calgary area by 21% compared with 2021/22 by contracting 3,000 additional hip and knee replacements and joint procedures annually to Canadian Surgery Solutions (CSS)

In 2021/22, the median wait time for orthopedic surgery in the province was 48.4 weeks, as patients waited 16 weeks to meet with a specialist and 32.4 weeks to receive treatment after meeting the specialist.

According to the Fraser Institute, the reasonable wait time for all surgeries in Alberta is 11.1 weeks, representing a difference of 8.1 weeks as residents waited nearly five months to receive treatment last year.

On Wednesday, the UCP discussed the hundreds of millions of dollars it committed to improve the delivery of health care in rural Alberta.

“By addressing key areas of the health-care system including pressures facing rural health care such as upgrading and modernizing facilities, Albertans can have better access to the high quality care they need where and when they need it,” said Health Minister Jason Copping.

The provincial funding includes $105 million over three years for the Rural Health Facilities Revitalization Program.

“This program revitalizes rural health facilities throughout the province focusing on small centres in underserved rural areas and strengthens supports in emergency departments, urgent care centres and emergency medical services,” said Copping.

The UCP government also budgeted $237 million for 2023 to reduce surgical wait times and expand operating rooms.

A further $250 million in provincial funding over four years is earmarked to address things like recruitment and retention programs for frontline staff.

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