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Patients' 'lives ruined' as hip surgery waits grow

Two osteoarthritis patients struggling with constant pain are speaking out in frustration about increasingly long waits to get hip replacement surgery.

Those affected vent outrage as governments fail to fix long-standing problem

Two osteoarthritis patients struggling with pain speak out about long waits to get hip replacement surgery 2:33

Two osteoarthritis patients struggling with constant pain are speaking out in frustration about increasingly long waits to get hip replacement surgery.

"It’s been absolutely horrific," said Julie Bennett, 55, a mother of four and home-care worker from Kamloops, B.C.

"I am in constant pain every day. And my life is slowly slipping away."

"It’s not tolerable," said Vancouver resident Chiara Borello, 85. "It’s not living…that I stay like this - waiting. It’s terrible."

Government statistics and physician surveys suggest wait times for joint replacements have increased or stayed the same in most Canadian provinces in the last five years - despite countless government promises to address the problem.

Chiara Borello is living in intolerable pain while she waits to see a specialist for hip replacement surgery. (CBC)

"I’m very angry. I don’t understand what’s going on here. I really don’t. It’s not like this is a new problem," said Bennett, who is among more than 3,000 people in B.C. currently waiting for new hips. "There are lives ruined."

"My mom is not suffering because there is nothing we can do," said Borello’s daughter Renata, "This is the type of suffering that could be resolved right now."

Demand up, waits grow

Among larger provinces, statistics show B.C.’s increasing wait times are the longest – twice as long as in Ontario, where earlier wait-time improvements have also slipped.  Demand is up everywhere.

Among all provinces, only Saskatchewan showed significant, consistent reductions in wait times since 2009.  

Bennett was referred for surgery on her right hip in November of 2013 and said she’s been told she won’t get in until early in 2016. She said her joint has deteriorated so much she is unable to work or even function without strong narcotic painkillers.

"I am losing income. Eventually I won’t be able to work at all. I never dreamt that I’d be in this position."

Her local hospital, Royal Inland, has the longest waits in the province, significantly higher than average.

Wheelchair next, patient fears

Overall, B.C.'s wait times vary wildly, depending on the surgeon. The government figures indicate most hip patients wait from six months to a year and a half - and that doesn't include the initial waits to get in to see a surgeon.

"I am eventually going to end up in a wheelchair, if I don’t start getting these things addressed," said Bennett who added her other hip is also deteriorating.

Chiara Borello was told she needed a new hip in January, but her first appointment with an orthopedic surgeon in Vancouver isn’t until next month.

Julie Bennett fears she will end up in a wheelchair if her hip isn’t fixed soon. She’s been told she won’t get in for surgery until 2016. (CBC)

Her daughter said she was only able to get that booked after she was taken to hospital by ambulance, in unbearable pain.

"Watching her suffer just makes me cry," said Renata Borello.

Hospitalized for pain

She said her mom was put in a dementia ward in Vancouver General Hospital for two weeks even though she has no cognitive impairments. 

"They just kept trying new drugs. It was always about pain management. Not about pain resolution. Or removing the cause of it," said Renata. 

The elderly woman said she would rather die than spend several more months taking incapacitating painkillers.

"If I drop dead, that’s fine. But I won’t take any more of that poison. That’s too much poison," said Chiara.

Renata Borello said she can't just stand by quietly and watch her mother suffer. (CBC)

The Fraser Institute is the only Canadian organization that has tracked national wait times over two decades.

Public complacency cited

The author of its annual report said he believes public complacency – acceptance of the unacceptable - is a big reason why most provinces have allowed wait lists to languish.

"We are starting to accept that it’s OK to wait a really long time. We are starting to accept that it’s OK for your situation to deteriorate, because that is just the price of a universal health care system. It’s not. There are several universal health care systems that do not have these long wait times," said Bacchus Barua.

Chiara Borello’s daughter points to the cocktail of drugs her 85-year-old mother is expected to take while she waits. (CBC)

He said Saskatchewan’s improvements are the likely result of recent changes there.

"One is a pool referral system - where they connect patients with the doctors that have the lowest wait times," said Barua. "Also, they are starting to contract with third-party private providers inside the public system."

B.C.’s minister of health said not enough co-ordinated OR time, nursing staff and anesthesiologists to meet the demand is the main problem there.

Consultations delay action

"I have asked our provincial surgical advisory committee to look at this situation because I think we can do better and that’s a matter of co-ordinating services between physicians between specialists and the hospitals and health authorities," said Terry Lake.

The province recently put out a policy paper that, ironically, said B.C. has an oversupply of orthopedic surgeons. It calls for consultation, which will take more time.

"Stop making excuses and get on with addressing the issues," said Bennett. "We have to start speaking up and saying this situation is just not acceptable anymore."

"I cannot have my mother suffer indefinitely waiting for some magical moment on some fictitious wait list for her to be attended to," said Renata Borello.

Source: Fraser Institute. Note: Data for small provinces, such as PEI, is less reliable due to small sample sizes.

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Bacchus Barua of the Fraser Institute said wait times for joint replacement surgery have been steadily getting worse for two decades, despite government promises to fix the problem. (CBC)

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