The economic cost of surgery wait times

While most Canadians would agree on the human cost of waiting for surgery and other medical treatments in Canada, few realize that there is also an economic cost in addition to the frustration, pain and stress for individuals and their families.

According to a Fraser Institute study published last year, the surgical wait times in the country cost Canadian patients a combined $1.08 billion in lost time and productivity in 2011. The report calculated the average value of time lost during the work week for each of the estimated 941,321 Canadians waiting for treatment in 2011. The main conclusion of the study is that the rationing of health care not only hurts Canadians' quality of life but also their wages and productivity.

When one considers the human cost and the economic cost of the health care system in Canada, it is clear that we are getting poor value for the money. A reduction in the waiting time for health care services would thus benefit all Canadians — but how could we achieve this goal?

Simply putting more money into the system will not work and will be counterproductive.

The OECD has since 2001 been monitoring 13 developed countries in terms of their ability to tackle excessive waiting times for elective treatments — and guess what? Whereas more than a decade later many of these countries have made considerable progress in reducing waiting times, Canada is now at the bottom of the list.

Why? Mainly because we still refuse to deliver publicly funded services through a combination of public and private hospitals.

Research shows that the countries with the most effective policies have introduced competition and allowed patients to choose between providers. Money follows the patients, and both public and private institutions vie to attract them with quality care. Contrary to our system, they have the right incentives to improve their services and deliver them in a timely manner.

In a country like Germany, where the health system is publicly financed and more than two-thirds of hospitals are either private for-profit or private not-for-profit, wait times are not a problem. Not only that, but patients do not have to pay more for health care. The amount of services covered by the state is somewhat higher than in Canada, and no one is being discriminated against because of financial means, wherever they choose to get their treatment.

Isn't it time we learn a thing or two from other OECD countries' health care management experience?

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.

Back to top