Manitobans can now track progress of wait-list backlog through surgical task force website

Manitoba’s surgical and diagnostic backlog task force has launched a website to track changes in wait times and wait-list volumes associated with COVID-19 pandemic disruptions.

The dashboard, which was unveiled Thursday, shows the number of patients waiting for nine different procedures, including hip and knee surgeries, tied to delays over the past two-and-half years of the pandemic. It also shows median wait times and the number of cases completed.

Figures are separated by procedure. The total number of backlog-related surgeries and procedures is not shown.

For much of the pandemic, as wait times and wait-lists ballooned, it was the physician advocacy organization Doctors Manitoba that provided best-guess estimates to the public on the problem — not the province.

David Matear, the executive director of the province’s diagnostic and surgical recovery task force, said the new dashboard shows gains made since his group took shape last year, and places that still need some work.

Cataract backlog drops from 1,200 to 116

One area that’s improved is cataract surgeries, Matear said at a Thursday news conference. The dashboard indicates that backlog has gone from about 1,200 cases earlier this year to 116 as of August — a reflection of task force-related efforts, Matear said.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Institute for Health Information published estimates suggesting the number of cataract and other eye surgeries in Manitoba dropped 44 per cent between March 2020 and June 2021 — the worst result among the nine provinces included in that analysis.

Another bright spot, according to Matear, is the number of hip and knee replacements done recently. More hip surgeries were done in the first half of this year than were performed in 2019, 2020 and 2021, he said.

For knees, more surgeries were done this year than in the past two years, and the province is getting close to pre-pandemic levels, said Matear.

Hip and knee surgery numbers are expected to continue to improve with the signing of three agreements with service providers outside the public system meant to help trim the wait-list down in the short term, he said.

Fix staffing crisis to address wait times: NDP

One spot that hasn’t improved is wait-lists for bone density diagnostic imaging, said Matear. According to the dashboard, patients waited on average eight weeks to get that done as of August 2019. As of August this year, that average had increased to 17 weeks.

The dashboard includes median wait times but does not show data on those waiting the longest or getting care the most quickly.

The dashboard totals do not include wait volumes that existed pre-pandemic, and Matear said it’s possible some wait times and waiting lists “were higher than ideal” pre-pandemic.

The task force’s mandate lasts two to three years, he said, and he committed to having the backlog eliminated within the lifespan of the group. 

Matear would not give a firm deadline for eliminating the backlog, saying it depends on a range of variables tied to contracts with private and out-of-province service providers, and their ability to deliver within agreed timelines.

Currently the dashboard doesn’t include surgeries and procedures being done out of province or through local private service providers, though Matear said the hope is to get those added.

The task force has struck several deals already to send patients outside of the public system, which continues to experience widespread staffing shortages that have contributed to long waits for care through the pandemic.

Uzoma Asagwara, health critic for the Opposition NDP, suggested reports of “chaos in emergency rooms” are a symptom of cuts to health care, which have also complicated efforts to trim the backlog.

They pointed to accounts reported Tuesday by an emergency room doctor who talked about “devastating” effects unfolding at St. Boniface Hospital, which he tied to staffing issues. 

“Chronic staffing shortages and a lack of viable options in health care mean Manitobans are forced to wait hours, sometimes on stretchers in hallways, at an emergency room. Fixing the staffing crisis has to be the first step to address wait times,” Asagwara said.

Data released by Shared Health on Thursday suggests Winnipeg’s four emergency rooms saw median wait times of 3.08 hours in September, an improvement of about nine minutes from the month before but still higher than usual.

The 90th percentile waits — which reflects the longest waits tracked in the system — were over nine hours, a 36-minute increase from August. At Health Sciences Centre, the province’s largest hospital, that number was more than 11 hours.

About one-sixth of ER patients left without being helped in September, a trend that held steady for the third month in a row.

Dr. Joss Reimer, chief medical officer of health at the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, said one short-term way to improve ER waits is to recommend people with less serious conditions head to one of five walk-in connected care clinics, which expanded hours last month.

Another is using “non-traditional” treatment spaces for those awaiting a bed. That could include adding beds to rooms with space, or moving someone from a ward bed to a lounge as they wait to be discharged.