Montreal

Premier calls 2019 deaths of at least 12 patients waiting for heart surgery 'unacceptable'

Premier François Legault says Quebec does not intend to send patients out of province for heart surgery. That's despite the fact a recent survey by the Quebec's association of cardiac surgeons found 12 patients died in the first four months of 2019 while waiting for an operation.

Risk of waiting for surgery 'greater than having the actual operation,' says head of cardiac surgeons group

In the first four months of 2019, 12 patients died while waiting for heart surgery in Quebec, the association of provincial heart surgeons has found. (Radio-Canada)

Premier François Legault says Quebec does not intend to send patients to Ontario or the U.S. for heart surgery. That's despite the fact a recent survey by the Quebec's association of cardiac surgeons found 12 patients died between January and April while waiting for an operation.

The association's president, Dr. Louis Perrault, said the number of deaths of people waiting for heart surgery may have grown since then.

 "I think it's possible to fix these problems in Quebec," Legault said Wednesday. He said it's unacceptable that hospitals are failing to respect the maximum wait times for surgery.

Perrault said surgery isn't being performed in a timely manner most often because of a shortage of operating room nurses and perfusionists — the technicians who operate the heart-lung machine during the surgery.

He said in some cases, a lack of beds also contributes to the delays. 

Perrault said there have been issues across the province, including at Montreal's four main teaching hospitals, the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), the Jewish General Hospital, the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM) and Sacré-Coeur.

"It's all a chain. If we have one professional that's not there, we can't operate. We can't treat the patient," he said. 

More nurses hired

Perrault said he would like to see the Quebec Health Ministry provide more incentives for operating-room and intensive-care nurses and for perfusionists. He would also like to see more nurses trained to assist in surgeries. 

Patients' rights advocate Paul Brunet blames the nursing shortage on the health reforms undertaken by ex-Liberal health minister Gaétan Barrette.  (CBC)

Patients' rights advocate Paul Brunet blames the nursing shortage on the health reforms undertaken by ex-Liberal health minister Gaétan Barrette. 

"The then-minister of health has neglected to take note that there was almost 1,000 nurses that were on unemployment in Quebec" while the Liberals were in power, Brunet said. "He was talking about a shortage which was totally false."

Brunet believes that current Health and Social Services Minister Danielle McCann has done a better job, by hiring more nurses, but it will take months for enough of them to be trained to work in operating rooms.

McCann says she is looking into the details of the 12 deaths and would like to see changes in the way hospitals are organizing their waiting lists. 

"We're asking these establishments, with their medical staffs, to manage in a rigorous way their waiting lists in cardiac surgery," McCann said. "The waiting list should be centralized." 

Health and Social Services Minister Danielle McCann is looking into the details of the 12 deaths. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Waiting is riskier than surgery itself

In the meantime, Perrault is cautioning patients on cardiac waiting lists to head to the emergency room if they start to feel severe chest pains or shortness of breath. If they have other health concerns while they're waiting for surgery, he says to call the pre-admission lines of their hospital. 

"The patients have to know that there is a risk for them being on that list," he said. "Actually, the risk is greater than having the actual operation — which does not make sense." 

Perrault said surgeries are often being cancelled to avoid paying staff overtime.

He said that's a practice that has to end.

About the Author

Franca G. Mignacca is a journalist at CBC Montreal.

With files from CBC Montreal's Lauren McCallum and Radio-Canada

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