Manitoba task force announces 1st steps to tackle growing surgical, diagnostic backlog

Sending some spinal surgery patients to the U.S. for treatment and rescheduling postponed gynecological procedures at a private clinic are among the first steps a Manitoba task force is taking to tackle a growing backlog of postponed procedures.

Women's health procedures, diagnostics, spine surgeries among initial backlogs targeted

On Wednesday, Health Minister Audrey Gordon, shown here in a November 2021 file photo, announced what she described as 'important first steps' in tackling Manitoba's backlog of surgeries and other medical procedures. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Shifting methods to screen for colon cancer, hiring more anesthesia clinical assistants, sending some spinal surgery patients to the U.S. for treatment and rescheduling postponed gynecological procedures at a private clinic are among the first steps a Manitoba task force is taking to tackle a growing backlog of postponed procedures.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon said while she believes those steps are an important start, she understands why the announcement might be met with skepticism from the many Manitobans waiting for care.

"You have every right to be frustrated and skeptical, because we all know that COVID has put extreme challenges on our health-care system. And those challenges have made these backlogs even worse," Gordon said at a Wednesday news conference. 

"But I want you to know that supporting you is at the heart of all of this work."

The details of the diagnostic and surgical recovery task force were first announced in December. Since then, the province's surgical and diagnostic backlog has swelled to over 150,000 procedures, the physicians' organization Doctors Manitoba says.

Among the steps announced Wednesday is shifting colon cancer screening to a diagnostic process called fecal immunochemical testing, which is expected to reduce the need for endoscopies, Gordon said.

That screening process is minimally invasive and highly accurate, Dr. Peter MacDonald, chair of the task force's steering committee, said at Wednesday's news conference. It's also expected to lead to faster screening and free up more operating room space for other procedures.

Once new screening process is fully implemented, the number of endoscopies in Manitoba is expected to drop by 10 to 15 per cent per year, the province said in a news release.

Some patients heading to U.S.

Manitoba will also train and hire up to 13 new anesthesia clinical assistants over the next three years, which the province said will double its current number. Those specialists will be put in operating rooms across the province to help increase capacity while supporting patient care, Gordon said.

The task force is also developing an agreement with the Maples Surgical Centre in Winnipeg and other local partners to start tackling a backlog of roughly 3,000 gynecological procedures beginning in early February, the province said.

Dr. Mary-Jane Seager, provincial specialty lead for women's health, said about 2,000 of those procedures can be done through day surgeries. Roughly 1,000 are expected to happen over the next few months, Seager said.

The province is also finalizing plans to send some patients awaiting spinal surgery to Fargo, N.D., for operations in a deal with Sanford Health, a non-profit health-care system based in the Dakotas. Gordon said that measure is an interim one while Manitoba builds its own surgical capacity.

Earlier this week, provincial surgery lead Dr. Ed Buchel said the first of those patients would travel to the U.S. as early as next week. But on Wednesday, the province said those services will be offered later this year as capacity allows at Sanford Health Fargo.

Buchel said that change was due to the number of COVID-19 cases linked to the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant in both Manitoba and North Dakota.

Patients who want to participate will be referred by their care provider, typically for conditions like spinal stenosis and chronic degenerative disc disease, the province said.

Details lacking: Opposition

Starting next month, the province will also reach out to hundreds of patients to get a more complete picture of who's waiting for care, what procedures they need and other information.

That effort will help inform the task force's priorities, the province said, since there is no verified, centralized wait list for most procedures. An online dashboard is also expected to launch in the coming months.

Gordon said the province has to date spent about $13.7 million on its effort to tackle the surgical and diagnostic backlog in Manitoba, and has already contracted out roughly 8,300 procedures.

Opposition NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara said the province's task force update should have included more details about expected timelines, and called on the government to publicly release an exhaustive list of the procedures and tests people are waiting for.

While the province has said people waiting for spinal surgery will only have to travel to the U.S. for treatment if they want to, the Union Station MLA said those patients don't really have much choice.

"That's the only option on the table," Asagwara said. "So to say that they're not forcing anybody to make that choice and to have to select that as an option is unfair."


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