Manitoba plans to send as many as 300 spinal-surgery patients to Fargo

Manitoba will send hundreds of patients awaiting spinal surgery to Fargo, N.D., to get their operations, and may end up sending joint-surgery patients to the United States as well.

Patients who've waited a year or more for surgery will be selected as part of effort to reduce surgery backlog

Two doctors dressed in blue scrubs lean over a patient while performing surgery.
Manitoba plans to send as many as 300 spinal-surgery patients to Fargo, N.D. (MAD.vertise/Shutterstock)

Manitoba will send as many as 300 patients awaiting spinal surgery to Fargo, N.D., to get their operations — and may send joint-surgery patients south as well.

The province is finalizing a deal with Sanford Health, a non-profit health-care system based in the Dakotas, to conduct surgeries on spinal patients who have already waited more than a year, enduring chronic pain and deteriorating mobility in the process.

"We acknowledge the suffering. We acknowledge the waits," said Dr. Ed Buchel, the provincial surgery lead for Manitoba Shared Health, adding there was no option to send patients elsewhere in Canada because every province is struggling to meet the health-care demands of the Omicron surge.

"We [must] do something about it now and acknowledge that we don't have a system that is able to handle that. But that doesn't mean we're ignoring the fact that we have to build."

No one with a broken back, an unstable spine or cancer will be sent to Fargo, Buchel said. Sending urgent cases south would be too upsetting to families, he added.

Buchel said Shared Health has identified 150 to 300 spinal-surgery patients who are healthy enough to travel to Fargo by car, but whose conditions are too serious to put off further.

"They're not super-easy cases that we can do as outpatients. They're not our super-difficult cases or our very acute cases. They're in the middle and that's the group that's waiting the longest," he said.

"These patients were waiting too long before the pandemic, and now this has just extended their wait even further."

The number of patients who actually make the trip will depend on Sanford Health's capacity and COVID safety protocols, Health Minister Audrey Gordon's office said.

Surgery waitlist has grown

Buchel said the waitlist for spinal surgery — just one component of a provincial backlog of more than 150,000 surgeries and other medical procedures — has continued to grow in recent weeks, thanks to the diversion of hospital staff from operating rooms to COVID-19 care.

Shared Health is still reducing its surgical capacity because of the Omicron surge, he said, even as a provincial task force works on plans to expand it.

The Sanford Medical Center in Fargo is located 360 kilometres south of Winnipeg. (Sanford Health)

Only patients willing and able to travel to the Sanford Medical Center in Fargo will be selected, Buchel said. Their family members are entitled to the same provincial financial supports they would receive if they travelled for medical procedures within Canada, he said.

The first patients will travel to Fargo next week or the following week. Patients will travel to Fargo for months while Manitoba works on increasing its surgical capacity, Buchel said.

He said he could not estimate how much the surgeries in Fargo will cost the province. Sanford Health charges rates comparable to the cost of the procedures conducted by public health care in Canada, he said.

Three of the doctors who will do the work in Fargo were trained in Canada, including two trained in Winnipeg, he said.

Extending care

Buchel said the province may also send joint-surgery patients south and will make more announcements about backlog-reduction measures in the coming weeks.

"I don't want anybody in the population to think that their surgical leadership or the government is throwing up their hands and saying, 'We can't deliver care, we have no plan and our plan is we're going to ship everybody to the United States.' That's not our plan. That is not a sustainable model of care for our province," he said.

"We need to treat our population in our province [with] our provincial health-care providers. And if we're not providing enough care, we need to extend that care. But that takes time."

Doctors Manitoba, which has pushed the province to address its surgery backlog, said it hopes the transfer of patients to the U.S. is a short-term fix.

"Sending patients out of Manitoba for care is not ideal, but we understand the task force has very few local options right now because of the shortage of staff and the current surge in Omicron hospital admissions," spokesperson Keir Johnson said in a statement.

Johnson noted that for a brief period two decades ago, under an NDP government, Manitoba sent radiation-therapy patients to the U.S.

Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg ICU physician who has been critical of the way the Progressive Conservative government has managed health care, said "it makes total sense" to send long-suffering spine surgery patients to the U.S. right now.

"Of course, it's not ideal, but we're not in an ideal time. So this is a welcome development and credit where credit is due," Jacobsohn said.

Even so, he noted Manitoba would not be in this position had the province not "stripped the system bare" to the point where patients had to wait months and years for spinal surgery.

Manitoba plans to send as many as 300 spinal-surgery patients to Fargo

1 year ago
Duration 2:20
Manitoba will send as many as 300 patients awaiting spinal surgery to Fargo, N.D., to get their operations — and may send joint-surgery patients south as well. The province is finalizing a deal with Sanford Health, a non-profit health-care system based in the Dakotas, to conduct surgeries on spinal patients who have already waited more than a year, enduring chronic pain and deteriorating mobility in the process.

How has COVID-19 affected your experience in Manitoba hospitals? CBC wants to hear from health-care workers, patients and loved ones.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.

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