Manitoba's surgical backlog swells 1 month after province created task force to tackle problem

The pandemic backlog for diagnostic and surgical procedures in Manitoba has reached 153,320 cases — an increase of 1,204 from last month — despite the province creating a task force to address the problem.

'There really is no part of our health care system that's not impacted by the Omicron wave': Doctors Manitoba

The estimated pandemic backlog in Manitoba for surgeries and diagnostics is now 153,320 cases, an increase of 1,204 over last month, Doctors Manitoba says. (StockLeb/Shutterstock)

The pandemic backlog for diagnostic and surgical procedures in Manitoba has reached 153,320 cases — an increase of 1,204 from last month — despite the province creating a task force to address the problem.

The latest data was released on Thursday by Doctors Manitoba on the organization's online dashboard, which the group plans to update monthly until more comprehensive reporting is available from the health system itself.

"There really is no part of our health-care system that's not impacted by the Omicron wave that we're seeing right now," Dr. Kristjan Thompson, president of Doctors Manitoba and an emergency medicine physician at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, told media in a video conference call on Thursday afternoon.

He said the backlogs are expected grow further, as the current estimates are primarily from before Omicron swept through the province.

"We do expect that next month … there will be a much larger jump," he said. "And I want to stress that these aren't just numbers. This is 10 per cent of our population.

"If you're not one of the unfortunate Manitobans left waiting, then you almost certainly have a friend, a family member, a loved one who is waiting in pain waiting in fear or uncertainty."

Dr. Kristjan Thompson says the pandemic has shown us is that our health-care system doesn't have the flexibility to free up resources and space to handle surges in demand. (Zoom)

Thompson took offence with Wednesday's statements by provincial officials that all Manitobans are likely to be exposed to COVID-19 in coming weeks, and that Manitobans should bear the onus for keeping the virus in check.

"Every single Manitoban has to take it upon themselves to protect themselves during this," Premier Heather Stefanson said. "The government can't protect everybody out there. You know, people have to learn to protect themselves."

That doesn't sit well with Thompson.

"I want to stress, now is not the time to give into frustration or resign ourselves to some fate. We cannot give up," he said.

"Manitobans need hope and we absolutely need to look after one another. Physicians in Manitoba will not abandon you."

Although there's been an overall increase in backlogged surgical and diagnostic cases, there have been some improvements, the organization said in a news release. 

The updated backlog shows an estimated 42,524 diagnostic imaging procedures (such as MRIs, CT scans and ultrasounds), which is an improvement of 407 cases over last month.

As well, there are an estimated 52,969 other diagnostic procedures (things like allergy tests, endoscopies, mammograms and sleep disorder studies), which is an improvement of 55.

"So, some reassuring information there," Thompson said.

However, the estimated 57,827 surgery cases is up 1,646 from last month.

"Within each of these categories, we estimate the backlog for some procedures has increased and others have improved," the news release said.

For instance, in surgery, the backlog grew in November for cardiac, hip/knee and other surgeries, but improved modestly for cataract surgery.

In diagnostic imaging, the backlog grew for myocardial perfusion and bone density studies but improved for MRIs and ultrasounds.

The backlog grew for allergy tests and endoscopies but improved modestly for mammograms and sleep studies, the group said.

Other backups

Doctors Manitoba is also hearing reports of other backups across the health-care system caused not only by a sharp increase in demand for care due to COVID-19 but an increase in physician and staff absenteeism and isolation requirements.

That has impacted access to hospital beds, emergency room care, ambulance availability, outpatient clinics and medical clinics. It also includes disruptions and staff shortages at many rural hospitals, the news release said.

"Right now it's very difficult to provide timely care for patients. I've never seen it this bad," Thompson said, adding Manitoba doesn't have the surge capacity to deal with current demands.

"This is not how physicians want to offer care. It's not the kind of care I want to provide — seeing a patient waiting in our ER hallway with metastatic cancer, who's throwing up in a bucket, and the only thing I can do is bring him a wet, cold towel and another bucket."

Not having a bed for that patient adds to the moral distress many health-care workers are feeling, he said.

"I think what the pandemic has done is it's shown us just how vulnerable and tenuous our system is," he said.

"These issues predated the pandemic but what the pandemic has shown us is that our system doesn't have that flex … to free up resources, to free up space to handle these surges."

Thompson said he has heard many people suggesting that if there is no way to avoid COVID, then they should just get it and move on.

"I reject this sentiment wholeheartedly," he said, reminding people it is a deadly virus.

Even if Omicron seems to cause less-severe symptoms in most cases, it can still be very serious for many people, he warned.

If everyone throws up their hands and resigns themselves to getting it, he said, it would flood the health-care system with cases and there is no way hospitals could cope.

That would mean even more people being shunted to the sides to wait for surgeries and other procedures.

"We cannot let that happen," Thompson said, emphasizing the need to slow down and spread out the impact on hospitals.

"I don't want people to abandon hope. I don't want people to give up. We can achieve great things but we do it by working together. It's not just our individual selves, it's what we do for others — what we do to help and support each other."


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.


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