Manitoba’s cataract surgery wait times, backlog, ‘not something to be proud of,’ eye doctor says

A Winnipeg ophthalmologist says the province must do better for its citizens in light of new data that suggests Manitoba lagged behind nearly all provinces when it came to cataract surgeries in the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic.

The latest report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) released on Monday night compares wait times among provinces in the first 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it comes to cataract surgery, Manitoba came in second-last for wait times between April 2020 and September 2021. According to CIHI, 39 per cent of those patients received the surgery within the 112-day benchmark period, compared to 66 per cent nationally.

Pre-pandemic, about 70 per cent of patients nationwide received cataract surgery within the recommended time span.

“That’s not something to be proud of,” said Dr. Jennifer Rahman during a virtual news conference held by Doctors Manitoba on Tuesday afternoon.

“We need to do better for Manitoba patients, especially when they’re suffering for years at a time with vision impairment.”

Rahman says there is a backlog of roughly 9,300 cataract surgeries in the province — roughly the same number that are normally done in a year — after their surgical teams were deployed out of the ophthalmology units four separate times to help deal with huge numbers of COVID-19 patients in previous waves of the pandemic.

Even so, there’s no indication from the province that ophthalmologists will be able to scale up their operations beyond their cap to clear the backlog.

“The ideal situation would be if [the province] just allowed us to continue doing as many cases as possible and left us uncapped for cases at our public centres so that we could get the job done. But unfortunately, there’s always seemed to be a cap every year,” Rahman said.

The cap is set for budgetary reasons, Rahman says.

At the end of March, the task force assigned to tackle Manitoba’s backlog of postponed procedures gave an update on its progress, and said services at Misericordia Health Centre’s cataract program are being expanded, but said nothing about how or when.

CBC News has reached out to the province for more updated information but hasn’t received a response.

Now mid-May, Rahman says she hasn’t seen any indication of how that expansion will be rolled out. Time is of the essence, she says, as some people can fall, lose their driver’s licence or be unable to work while waiting for surgery.

“There are a lot of things that happen while they’re waiting for cataract surgery potentially to make them unsafe and make them unable to be independent, and that’s very concerning.” 

There’s also more risks for complications the longer people wait for surgery, she said.

Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew said in an interview after question period on Tuesday that the data from CIHI is a “major concern.”

“We’ve heard anecdotally from so many people who are waiting in pain for a surgery in Manitoba who have been increasingly frustrated by not only the delays to get surgery, but also the delays from the government to act on clearing the surgical backlog,” he said.

“This data just helps to reinforce how serious this problem is.”