The study, an annual survey of physicians across Canada, reports a median wait time of 27.4 weeks — the longest ever recorded. In 2021, wait times increased to 25.6 weeks — 195% higher than the 9.3 weeks Canadians waited in 1993 when the Fraser Institute began tracking wait times.
The study examines the total wait time faced by patients across 12 medical specialties, from a referral by a general practitioner to consultation with a specialist to when the patient ultimately receives treatment. Ontario recorded the shortest wait time among the provinces at 20.3 weeks, up from 18.5 weeks in 2021. Prince Edward Island recorded the longest wait time in Canada at 64.7 weeks.
Through a series of Freedom of Information (FOI) responses from provincial governments and territories, nearly 3 million people are waiting for surgery, a diagnostic scan or an appointment with a specialist. As some provinces didn't respond with complete data, SecondStreet.org cautiously estimates the actual total is at least 3.7 million — roughly one in ten Canadians.
"It's not just that Canada has millions on waiting lists," said SecondStreet.org President Colin Craig. "The stories behind many of those numbers are pretty atrocious. Sadly, some patients are even dying while waiting to receive a diagnostic scan or meet with a specialist, never mind getting to the point where they've been put on a surgical wait list."
According to the Fraser Institute study, the surgical backlogs indicate that COVID-19 and related hospital closures have exacerbated, but are not the cause, of Canada's historical wait times challenges. "Previous results revealed that patients waited an estimated 20.9 weeks for medically necessary elective care in 2019 — long before the pandemic started," said Bacchus Barua, director of the Fraser Institute's Centre for Health Policy Studies and co-author of Waiting Your Turn: Wait Times for Health Care in Canada, 2022.
Among the various specialties, national wait times were the longest between a referral by a GP and neurosurgical procedures (58.9 weeks) and shortest for radiation treatments (3.9 weeks).
Patients also experience significant waiting times for various diagnostic technologies. This year, Canadians could expect to wait 5.4 weeks for a computed tomography (CT) scan, 10.6 weeks for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, and 4.9 weeks for an ultrasound.
"The number of Canadians on a waiting list is roughly the same as the populations of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia combined," added Craig. "Health care spending has exploded over the past few decades, yet here we are. We need health reform."
"Excessively long wait times remain a defining characteristic of Canada's healthcare system," said Mackenzie Moir, Fraser Institute policy analyst and co-author of the report. "And they aren't simply minor inconveniences. They can result in increased patient suffering, lost productivity at work, a decreased quality of life, and in the worst cases, disability or death."
SecondStreet.org released its fourth Died on a Waiting List report on Tuesday after gathering and analyzing government data on patients dying while waiting for surgery and diagnostic scans. Before dying on a waiting list, patients had waited anywhere from less than a month to over eight years. Many died after waiting longer than the recommended wait time.
At least 13,581 patients died while waiting for surgeries, procedures and diagnostic scans in 2021-22 — up from last year's total of 11,581.
"The pandemic made a bad situation worse, but Canadians should know this was a growing problem before COVID arrived," said Craig. "It's quite startling how governments aren't tracking this problem. A health minister would want to know how many patients died due to long waiting lists in their province, but no health minister in Canada knows the answer."
According to the report, there has been a 24% increase in surgical waiting list deaths. Information obtained from Ontario Health data shows an increase of over 400% in waiting list deaths for CT and MRI scans since 2015-16.
Nova Scotia provided the most comprehensive data, citing 352 patient deaths while waiting for surgery this past year.
Twenty-eight waited for surgeries that could have saved their lives, while over 60% stayed longer than the recommended wait time.
Alberta no longer collects data related to this problem, and Saskatchewan did not provide data in time. However, SecondStreet.org did obtain some data from Newfoundland for the first time.
"Laura Hillier, Michel Houle, Jerry Dunham, Shannon Anderson, there are many cases of patients dying due to long waiting lists in Canada," added Craig. "How can governments fix this problem if they're not even looking into it? The first step is to start tracking the problem, then put in place solutions."
Both organizations provided solutions to address Canada's bloated healthcare system, including more healthcare choices, activity-based funding, and waiting list incident reports.