Province to spend $100M on operating rooms to shorten wait times

The Alberta government will spend $100 million constructing and renovating operating rooms in Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie and elsewhere, Premier Jason Kenney says.

Simpler surgeries to move to smaller hospitals under new plan

The province aims to double the number of surgeries performed in private clinics by 2023. (CBC)

The Alberta government will spend $100 million constructing and renovating operating rooms in Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie and elsewhere, Premier Jason Kenney says.

The investment is part of a re-organization of Alberta operating rooms to equip more urban hospitals to handle complex surgeries, Health Minister Tyler Shandro told reporters at Edmonton's Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute on Wednesday.

"Albertans are going to get quicker access to surgeries they need closer to home," Shandro said.

Wait times for some essential surgeries rose between 2015 and 2019 to become unacceptably long, Kenney said on Wednesday.

"Albertans want, expect and deserve the highest quality health care that their tax dollars can buy," he said.

The money will cover upgrades of operating rooms in Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital and the University of Alberta Hospital, including the addition of a new operating room.

Calgary's Foothills Medical Centre will see upgrades to 12 operating rooms. Surgical suites in Grande Prairie, Rocky Mountain House, Edson, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat will also be renovated.

The changes will allow Alberta Health Services to shuffle more routine procedures to smaller hospitals in Fort Saskatchewan, Edmonton's Grey Nuns Hospital, and the Sturgeon Community Hospital in St. Albert.

Tweaking where surgeries are performed

The changes are part of a new provincial surgical care initiative, which aims to shorten wait lists by spending $500 million in the next three years. The approach is similar to a Saskatchewan program that ran between 2010 and 2014 to whittle down wait times.

Dr. Verna Yiu, CEO of Alberta Health Services, said Alberta will need more doctors and other health professionals working in the province to tackle the growing number of planned surgeries. That news comes at a time when family doctors are in an uproar about the government's changes to how they are paid.

The government had already announced in last week's budget it intends to double the number of surgeries performed in private clinics. By 2023, 30 per cent of Alberta surgeries would be done outside of hospitals, if the government achieves this goal.

In its 2019 election platform, the United Conservative Party pledged to reduce surgery wait times to no more than four months within four years of taking office. Its goal was to reduce the number of people waiting more than three months by 75 per cent by the end of government's first term.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, wait times for non-emergency coronary bypass surgery, hip replacements, knee replacements and cataract repair all rose between 2014 and 2018. For cataract repair, in 2014, 71 per cent of Alberta patients had surgery within 112 days of referral. By 2018, only 49 per cent were in the operating room within that 112-day goal.

Alberta did improve access to urgent hip fracture repair surgeries during that time. In 2018, 94 per cent of patients were under the knife within 48 hours.

Critics question privatization plan

NDP health critic David Shepherd said Wednesday the government will have trouble staffing more operating rooms when its policy decisions could drive health-care workers out of the province.

Many family doctors are upset about government changes to doctor pay and the finance minister has said there's no money in the budget for raises to nurses and other public sector workers.

"(Shandro) is making enemies of the very doctors and physicians that need to perform these surgeries, not to mention the nurses and the other people that provide support, as they look to reduce the number of nurses across the province," Shepherd said.

Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, questioned how the government intends to spend the rest of the $500 million it has budgeted to improve surgery wait times. Although she welcomed a $100-million investment in public hospitals, she questioned how much funding will go to for-profit surgical centres.

She said rejigging where surgeries are offered could force some patients and families to travel and incur extra costs out of pocket.

Outsourcing more surgeries to private clinics was a supposedly cost-saving option recommended by both a blue ribbon report on provincial spending and an Ernst and Young review of Alberta Health Services.