Manitoba task force will look at sending some patients out of province to address surgical, diagnostic backlog
Doctors Manitoba says there are more than 152,000 postponed surgeries and diagnostic procedures
A long-awaited Manitoba task force will attempt to tackle a backlog of thousands of surgeries, tests and diagnostic procedures accumulated in the province during the COVID-19 pandemic by identifying priorities and exploring options that include sending patients outside of the province for care.
"I know that these stories of delayed care touch each and every one of us. They are frightening for us and our loved ones," Health Minister Audrey Gordon said at a Wednesday news conference announcing details about the task force.
The diagnostic and surgical recovery task force, which was initially announced weeks ago, will address wait lists for procedures by identifying priority needs, and will implement local and out-of-province services as a temporary plan to offer more timely care, the province says.
The task force will, among other things, provide monthly updates to Manitobans, negotiate agreements with health-care providers locally and out of province, and identify patients who are ready for procedures and can travel to another jurisdiction if the procedure can be performed there sooner.
An initial report from the task force will be released in the new year, which will set out an analysis of the current situation, a summary of progress and how success will be measured, Gordon said.
"While we deal with the backlogs and wait-lists that resulted from prioritizing COVID care and the pandemic response, we believe this approach will create benefits through the system as a whole," she said.
Efforts will be made to perform procedures in Manitoba, the health minister said.
"We will be looking across our system here in the province to determine if the surgery can be done here, if we have the capacity to do it here. If not, then we would be engaged with the patient and their family about opportunities to have their care or their surgery provided outside of Manitoba, but first and foremost is to provide their care here."
However, some doctors and nurses say there isn't capacity to do that.
Dr. Ed Buchel, the head of surgery at Shared Health, said the provincial health organization is working on improving that capacity by hiring more nurses and redeploying health-care staff to meet those needs where possible.
There are no plans right now to start sending routine cases that are part of the backlog out of province, he said.
"We will continue to strive every day to increase our capacity so we keep Manitobans in Manitoba, with care delivered by our surgeons and our nurses and our hospital system," Buchel said.
"If there's going to be problems with their health care long term, we absolutely will transfer them out to make sure they have the care they need in a timely fashion."
Doctors Manitoba estimates the surgical and diagnostic backlog now surpasses 152,000 cases, according to its online dashboard.
Buchel doesn't necessarily dispute those numbers, but says there's no way to know exactly how many surgeries and diagnostic procedures are being postponed, so both agencies are estimating and focusing on numbers at different ends of the spectrum.
Plan lacks specifics: critics
One of the people waiting for surgery is Kim Riddell, who spoke to reporters after the task force details were announced.
Her biggest question wasn't answered. She wants to know when the backlog will be reduced.
"That gives me an indication of how soon I, and a lot of other people like me, are going to be able to look at when we can be scheduled," she said.
"Without a specific targeted date and targeted funds … it doesn't help me at all."
Doctors Manitoba echoed her question in a statement released after the news conference, saying the organization looks forward to a target date being set.
Riddell finds the prospect of travelling out of the province for care daunting.
"What I would find difficult in traveling out of province would be being away from my family and my supports that I have here.… It's a lot to consider going and having a surgery somewhere far away from home."
The Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals says the province's plan doesn't adequately address what it says is a staffing crisis.
"Staffing is at a critical level, and the current staff don't have any more to give," Bob Moroz, the president of the association, said in a news release.
"We're still seeing no acknowledgement from government that we need more allied health professionals to do the job."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew criticized the decision to appoint Matthew Lister as the project team director of the task force. Lister penned an opinion piece in the National Post in 2011 calling for Canadian health-care systems to be leaner.
"To me, that's not the right approach, when we have a staffing crisis in Manitoba's health-care system, to bring in somebody who's got a very clear ideological bent," the Opposition leader said.
A provincial spokesperson said Lister was selected for his strong project management capability and his breadth of experience with major health-care organizations in Canada.
Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont wants to see more money spent on rebuilding what he says is a broken health-care system.
"We have to be able to care to care for our own. That's the only long-term solution."