COVID pandemic contributed to healthcare backlog, staffing shortages and burnout, says report

According to provincial and territorial data from June 2022 to April 2023, reported that nearly one in ten (2,943,069) Canadians are waiting to either see a specialist, have surgery or a diagnostic scan.

COVID pandemic contributed to healthcare backlog, staffing shortages and burnout, says report
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According to a new report, Canada has made modest reductions to its healthcare backlogs, but staffing shortages and burnouts remain a problem.

On August 2, the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) uncovered roughly 743,000 fewer surgeries performed in Canada during the first 30 months of the pandemic — a 13% drop from 2019.

Despite the drop in surgeries, overtime hours for frontline healthcare workers increased by 15% from 2020 to 2021 over the previous year, demonstrating ongoing staffing shortages and burnout.

"It takes a long time to catch up when you have to cancel a large number of surgeries," said Kathleen Morris, CIHI's vice president of research and analysis.

The analysis found only modest increases of 1% to 9% in surgeries among the provinces and territories — excluding Québec — between March 2021 and June 2022.

While surgical volumes fell most significantly from 2020 to mid-2022 in Newfoundland at 21%, P.E.I. experienced no demonstrative reductions in their surgical waitlist.

"While there is some good in these latest numbers, let's not forget the millions of patients still waiting for the care they need," said Colin Craig, president of

"Many of their stories are tragic: people waiting in pain for joint surgery, people unable to see properly because of untreated cataracts. Governments need to implement real health reforms now to help Canadian patients."

Policy think tank claimed government data showed 637,728 Canadians were placed on surgical wait lists according to provincial and territorial data ranging from June 2022 to April 2023.

During that period, reported that nearly one in ten (2,943,069) Canadians are waiting to either see a specialist (1,063,187 patients), have surgery or a diagnostic scan (1,242,154 patients).

P.E.I. did not report their waitlist for the aforementioned healthcare procedures.

While CIHI could not provide detailed information on the status of backlogs in Québec, learned through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request the province reduced the number of patients waiting for diagnostic scans from 707,454 to 372,509. 

Their surgical waitlist increased slightly, from 160,684 to 160,815, while the number of patients waiting to see a specialist rose significantly — from 793,658 to 836,558.

In Manitoba, the number of patients waiting for surgery dropped from 8,905 to 8,270, and the number of patients waiting for diagnostic scans dropped from 56,296 to 47,482.

Last August, the province announced a new agreement to send patients abroad for hip and knee surgeries in Ohio. As of January, only 140 people have gone under the knife outside Manitoba.

"It's positive to see governments trying many different methods to get patients the care they need," added Craig. "From funding more surgeries in hospitals to hiring private clinics to provide services to patients, we're seeing some very positive progress."

However, the CBC previously reported that Newfoundland's waitlist for hip and knee replacements remained in limbo at 1,900 patients between 2022 and June 2023, despite increased efforts to open up slots for orthopedic procedures. 

However, a Newfie surgeon's letter, obtained through an access to information request, revealed that doing more surgeries annually would not adequately tackle its backlog with an aging population. 

"Projections show that completing 1,100 cases annually will still result in waitlist growth to 4,500 people by third quarter 2029," it reads.

According to, 14,485 residents were on surgical waitlists as of last November.

"What's important to note about healthcare in Canada is that the system was in a crisis before COVID hit. All the pandemic did was make things worse," Craig told Rebel News.

"We have an aging population in Canada that is putting more and more pressure on the system. Governments have known for decades that this challenge was coming but didn't prepare for it. COVID compounded this burden."

He urged provincial and territorial governments to find the "political will power" to make meaningful health reform. Otherwise, he expects the crisis to continue.

"Fortunately, we could learn from many countries with better performing, universal health care systems."

To reduce surgical backlogs nationwide, CIHI suggested that provincial and territorial health systems bolster surgical capacity and staffing above pre-pandemic levels.

According to the report, hospitals struggle to reduce surgical backlogs amid a shortage of healthcare workers after years of pandemic pressure and burnout.

"The 18 million overtime hours worked in Canada's public hospitals [between 2020 and 2021] is the equivalent of more than 9,000 full-time jobs, which gives a sense of the increased workload during the pandemic's first year," it reads.

The CIHI states long-term care facilities experienced a 2% decline in registered nurses providing direct patient care during that period.

"The pressure contributed to burnout and illness, which can have long-term implications for the health of workers and healthcare systems. Some workers changed jobs and even careers."

Burnout is a real phenomenon, Toronto-based trauma nurse Eram Chhogala told the CBC. "It's something that we've all encountered just by the workloads, the lack of staffing." 

In Chhogala's case, the most brutal stretch of the pandemic occurred when her father received treatment for COVID at the same hospital she juggled 12-hour shifts.

"Those were definitely moments where I nearly felt like I was going to break down," she recalled, adding that her father later passed away due to illness.

On a regional basis, provinces and territories estimated between 80% and 90% of residents have regular access to primary care. Only 24% of Nunavut residents said the same.

According to the CIHI, Canadians in rural and remote areas experienced more challenges finding regular healthcare providers. Young adults aged 18 to 34 were also the least likely to have a regular provider.

Overall, 88% of Canadians aged 12 and up reported having access to a regular healthcare provider. 


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