Nfld. & Labrador·Critical Condition

'We're not just numbers here': Patients complain specialist wait times too long

Some people in Newfoundland and Labrador say they're facing shocking wait times to see medical specialists.

Some say they're waiting months — even years — to get medical appointments

Deborah Griffiths, who lives in the Dunville area of Placentia, expects to wait a total of four years to see an orthopedic back specialist for pain related to spinal stenosis and other conditions. (CBC )

Even brushing her teeth can be a challenge for Deborah Griffiths, but she hasn't given up hope that an orthopedic back specialist can help her … eventually.

Griffiths, 56, lives with such debilitating pain that just holding a toothbrush can be difficult.

She said she's been waiting far too long to get an appointment.

"The last time I called … the lady told me — in addition to the two years I've already waited — I have two more years to wait, which will be four years," Griffiths said.

As part of Critical Condition, CBC-NL's special series on health care, people from across Newfoundland and Labrador are sharing their frustrations and worries about long waits for some medical services.

The aim of the series is to shine a light on problems within the health-care system and discuss possible solutions.

Debilitating pain

Griffiths used to love to cycle, jog and use the exercise equipment in the basement of her home, in the Dunville area of Placentia.

But in January 2016, when she was out for a walk, a sudden unbearable pain shot through her back and leg.

Griffiths said just a few months later, her doctor ordered her off work.

I miss being me. I miss being who I was, and I want to get back there.- Deborah Griffiths

Her diagnosis includes spinal stenosis, a narrowing of spaces within the spine that can put pressure on nerves.

"I miss being me," said Griffiths. "I miss being who I was, and I want to get back there. Somehow I want to get back there."

18 months already, still waiting to see geneticist

Griffiths is not alone in her frustrations about wait times.

One young woman who lives with debilitating health problems told CBC News she's been waiting for an appointment with a geneticist for 18 months — and still doesn't have a date set.

A man told CBC he needs a cataract removed and has been waiting seven months already to see an ophthalmologist. He still doesn't have an appointment, let alone a date for surgery.

Wait times to see rheumatologists have long been a serious problem in Newfoundland and Labrador.

A woman with what's believed to be an unusual type of arthritis said she's been categorized as one of the most urgent cases. Her muscles are so weak that her ability to swallow has been affected, as well as her breathing, and she's afraid she'll require a feeding tube at some point in the future.

Children also affected

The woman told CBC she's been waiting for an appointment with a specialist since September 2017.

She even asked to travel out of province to see a rheumatologist, but Eastern Health denied the request, saying the service is available in this province.

"We're not just numbers here," the woman said. "This is my life."

CBC News has found that lengthy wait times also extend to medical care for children.

Eastern Health advised the parents of a toddler with numerous health issues to expect these wait times for more specialized care. (CBC)

The father of a toddler with numerous health issues forwarded a document from Eastern Health, showing that the family should expect to wait 17 months before a pediatrician can see the child. It will take a minimum of 15 months before the child starts speech language therapy.

It's expected to take two years before a psychologist and a social worker will see the child.

Family doctor concerned for patients

Dr. Annette McCarthy, a family physician in Bay Bulls, cited a long list of areas where she's concerned about wait times, ranging from orthopedics, rheumatology, psychiatry and chronic pain management to addictions medicine and services.

"Those are the areas that I think a lot of family physicians are worried about," said McCarthy, adding that there are also wait times for long-term care and home care, as well as diagnostic tests and hospital beds.

Dr. Annette McCarthy, a family physician in Bay Bulls, says she's concerned about the stress and anxiety on patients who are waiting long wait times for further care. (CBC)

Long waits mean extra work for general practitioners, including extra phone calls to check on the status of referrals and additional appointments with patients who are having a hard time coping with their conditions.

McCarthy said their welfare is front and foremost in her mind.

"They can have a delay in diagnosis, delay in treatment or condition," said McCarthy. "It can also create a lot of anxiety and stress."

Family doctors are able to consult with specialists by email, which McCarthy said is helpful.

Some areas functioning well

It's not all bad news. There are areas where the health-care system seems to be functioning well.

McCarthy cited ear, nose or throat surgery in the St. John's area as one example where wait times are reasonable.

McCarthy chats with a patient in an examining room. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

As well, one man contacted CBC to say that during his eight years of cancer treatment, 95 per cent of his appointments have run on time — although he said he has faced long wait times in emergency rooms.

According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, all patients across Newfoundland and Labrador who needed radiation therapy in 2017 received it within the recommended benchmark of 20 days.

'Open your eyes'

On the day Deborah Griffiths spoke with CBC, she appeared to be in severe pain.

She avoided sitting, and was unable to stand without leaning her hands on the kitchen counter. She shifted constantly to stop from seizing up.

There's no need for a four-year wait for anybody. You gotta fix the system.- Deborah Griffiths

Griffiths said she's still hopeful that she can return to health, and socializing with friends and spending time watching her grandson play hockey and her granddaughter skate.

"Oh boys, open your eyes. There's no need for a four-year wait for anybody," said Griffiths.

"You gotta fix the system."

As she finished the thought, she added one more word: "Please."

This story is part of CBC-NL's Critical Condition series on the health-care system. Share your experiences as well as suggestions for improving the system by emailing: mystory@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Ramona Dearing has worked as a reporter, host and producer at CBC's St. John's bureau.

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