Sick of waiting as Manitoba surgery backlog grows, some seek costly procedures out of province — or country

Manitoba’s growing backlog of surgeries and diagnostic procedures have driven some patients to seek out options in other provinces, or even other countries, sometimes paying tens of thousands of dollars to do it. 

Premier Heather Stefanson has promised to create a task force to deal with wait list for medical procedures

The backlog of surgeries and diagnostic procedures has grown to nearly 130,000, according to a report released last month by Doctors Manitoba, and has resulted in many Manitoba patients seeking treatment out of province, or even outside Canada. (Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

Manitoba's growing backlog of surgeries and diagnostic procedures have driven some patients to seek options in other provinces, or even other countries, sometimes paying tens of thousands of dollars to do it. 

Jennifer Agnew already faced a wait of a year and a half to get hip-replacement surgery when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the province's hospitals to postpone non-urgent procedures. Now, she's still waiting to get a date, despite calling weekly. 

"I'm so desperate because it's starting to affect my mobility, to the point that if I don't get this surgery soon, I'm going to need a wheelchair."

Agnew, 42, was born with hip dysplasia, a condition in which the ball of the femur isn't fully covered by the socket. The joint has now worn down to the point that the bones grind together, making it painful for her to walk and affecting her ability to play with her two children.

"I couldn't even go trick or treating with my kids," she said.

Backlog of 130,000 procedures

According to a report from Doctors Manitoba released last month, the backlog of surgeries and diagnostic procedures has grown to nearly 130,000. 

Newly appointed Premier Heather Stefanson has made clearing that backlog her first priority, promising to create a task force to deal with the wait list in her speech upon being sworn in Tuesday, and again in announcing her first throne speech on Wednesday.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has made the problem worse, Agnew said the province already had long waits for many procedures for years.

"It seems like this has kind of fallen on the back burner," she said.

Getting the procedure at a private clinic would cost $30,000, according to Agnew. She's now looking at possibly having the procedure done in Saskatchewan, where she also has a residence, and where the wait to see a doctor is three months.

Others have chosen to dig into their own pockets, and in some cases take on significant debt, to pay for procedures out of the country.

Max Johnson flew to Lithuania to undergo knee surgery rather than wait up to two years for the procedure in Manitoba. (Submitted by TTJ Tourism)

Max Johnson flew to Lithuania, where he is recovering after undergoing knee replacement surgery, paying $15,000 for the surgery and post-operation care.

"My choice was to wait possibly two years in Winnipeg or going overseas to have it done somewhere that could do it within three weeks," said Johnson.

It's "disingenuous" of the government to blame the pandemic for the delays, he said.

Johnson said many other clients at the clinic where he had his surgery came from other European countries, some of which reimburse citizens who are forced to seek care abroad if they can't get it at home within a reasonable time. 

"That, I think, is an interesting way of looking at it," he said.

Province contracting with partners

Barbie Shukster had spinal stenosis, a debilitating nerve disease in the spine and drove to Rochester, Minn., to have her surgery at the Mayo Clinic.

The procedure cost $27,000 US, and she had to take out a personal loan to cover the cost.

The trip also put significant strain on Shukster and her partner, who became like a nurse, but she says it was worth it to get back to the things she loves, such as kayaking and playing with her grandchildren.

Barbie Shukster had surgery for spinal stenosis at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She hopes to get back to kayaking on Lake Winnipeg by next summer. (Submitted by Barbie Shukster)

"Why did I have to do that? Why couldn't I have just, you know, had it done in Winnipeg?"

In a statement, Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the province has contracted with organizations and partners to perform over 11,000 additional procedures to begin to address the backlog caused by COVID-19. 

In addition Pan Am Clinic, Misericordia Health Centre and Victoria General Hospital in Winnipeg all went back to their full slates of procedures at the end of the third wave of the pandemic earlier this summer.

Winnipeg's Concordia Hospital returned to a full slate at the end of September, and the Grace Hospital was back to a full slate by mid-October. 

With files from Cameron MacLean, Jim Agapito, Issa Kixen and Pat Kaniuga


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