Just half of Alberta cataract patients undergo surgery within recommended wait time: study

Albertans are waiting longer for joint replacement and cataract surgeries than they were three years ago, but wait times have stayed stable for more urgent therapies, according to a study from a Canadian non-profit.

Waits for joint replacement surgeries have increased as well

Alberta patients are waiting longer for joint replacement and cataract surgeries, a study has found. (iStock)

Albertans are waiting longer for joint replacement and cataract surgeries than they were three years ago, but wait times have stayed stable for more urgent therapies, according to a study from a Canadian non-profit. 

The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) released new wait-time data late Wednesday evening that found 73 per cent of Alberta patients received hip replacement surgery within the recommended wait time of six months in 2017, down from 83 per cent in 2015.

There was a similar increase in wait times for knee replacement patients in 2017 in Alberta, with 67 per cent of patients receiving the procedure within six months, compared with 79 per cent in 2015.

For patients undergoing cataract surgeries, 56 per cent of patients in 2017 waited less than the recommended 16 weeks, compared with 64 per cent in 2015.

"What we can see within Alberta is that the number of surgeries are increasing for hip replacement, while for knee replacement they are fairly stable," said Jennifer D'Silva, manager of emerging issues at CIHI. "For hip replacements, despite the longer wait times we are seeing more surgeries being performed."

A Calgary-based patient advocacy group is calling on AHS to step up its efforts to reduce wait times for medical procedures.

Rick Lundy, founder of Open Arms Patient Advocacy Society, says it's a frustrating situation.

"Not just with what we are talking about today but with many, many different issues. And they need to address it and they need to stay with it and be committed and actually fix it," he said.

"We're getting tired of listening to them, 'Yeah we're working on it, we're working on it.' And a year or two or three down the road, not only is it not getting better but it's getting worse. So their fixing it is not working."

Alberta Health Services Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francois Belanger says steps are being taken to improve wait times.

"Anywhere from ways that we can improve our surgical capacity ... to ways that we can actually prevent patients from getting surgery," he said.

Belanger says that can involve helping people manage obesity.

He says AHS is also putting more money into cancer and cardiovascular surgeries, and to a lesser degree, hip, knee and cataract procedures.

Increased demand for surgeries as population ages

D'Silva said there are a number of reasons for the increased waits, including the need for surgeries to treat Canada's aging population and improvements in medicine that mean more people are eligible for procedures.

"Need is increasing, we know certainly there is an aging population and so the number of people that would qualify and need these procedures is increasing. We also see improvements in surgical techniques so we're seeing joint replacements being done in younger patients."

The number of hip replacements performed across Canada increased seven per cent over the three year period. 

Alberta's wait times for hip and knee replacements were close to the national average, but for cataract surgery wait times in Alberta were much longer than elsewhere in the country, with only 56 per cent of Albertans receiving the treatment in the benchmark time frame, compared to 71 per cent of Canadians.

Urgent surgery waits have not increased

D'Silva said there are some positives in the numbers as well.

"At a national level, we do see the wait times for more urgent surgeries such as hip-fracture repair — where it's generally recommended to have it within 48 hours — we see those wait times remaining stable. So it could be that we're doing a good job making sure that people who need the surgery more urgently are being seen within the recommended time frame," she said.

Alberta is one of the provinces that saw an improvement in hip fracture surgery wait times in 2017, and more patients in the province are seen sooner than the national average — with 92 per cent of Alberta patients getting the surgery within 48 hours, compared to 87 per cent of Canadians. 

Another bright spot for wait times in Alberta was that 99 per cent of patients that received radiation therapy within the recommended 28 days in 2017. CIHI said that prompt radiation therapy is important, as delays have been linked to increased likelihood of cancer recurrence. 

Emergency room, specialist waits still high

However, the wait time numbers don't reflect a patient's entire journey, CIHI said. Wait times to see a specialist are not included in the numbers. 

A study from The Commonwealth Fund in 2016 found 30 per cent of Canadians were waiting two months or more to see a specialist, meaning Canada had the highest wait times of the 11 countries studied. 

CIHI also found that emergency department wait times have continued to rise over the past few years, with the length of stay increasing 11 per cent from the year before and nearly 17 per cent from five years ago.

The data on surgery wait times came from acute care facilities that submitted to CIHI's Discharge Abstract Database. The five priority areas studied were set in 2004, and CIHI has been monitoring wait times since 2008. The agency said data might not be complete, but that it was estimated it had received 90 per cent of abstracts during the study period. 

With files from Elizabeth Snaddon