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Health care waits cost $1B

Canadians lost about $1.1 billion last year while waiting for medically necessary health care, a new study from the Fraser Institute has found.

The study looked at the average amount of time that each of the 928,000 or so Canadians lost last year while they waited for surgery or other care.

It noted that the median waiting time between a patient seeing a specialist to actually having treatment was around 9.6 weeks in 2013. They focused on 12 medical specialties, including orthopaedic surgery, radiation oncology and cardiovascular surgery.

In order to calculate the costs of waiting, the authors looked at previous studies that estimated how many patients waiting for care experienced "significant difficulty" in carrying on their work or daily duties as a result of their medical conditions.

They found patients endured an estimated private cost of at least $1.1 billion in lost productivity, or about $1,202 per patient.

The report authors say that's just the costs endured in lost work-week productivity. When they looked at hours lost during the evenings and weekends, the estimated cost of waiting jumped from $1.1 billion to $3.4 billion, or an average of $3,681 per patient.

The public policy think-tank says the estimate in its report -- entitled "The Private Cost of Public Queues for Medically Necessary Care" -- is likely conservative, noting it only looked at costs borne by the patient waiting for treatment, not the costs of family members providing supportive care.

Study author Nadeem Esmail says all that lost productivity adds up.

But he says the negative impact of waiting on a patient's ability to participate fully in life is often ignored in the health-care debate.

"Reduced productivity in the workplace, or reduced ability to engage with family and friends, may impact family income and increase stress for Canadian patients,” Esmail, the Fraser Institute's director of health policy studies, said in a statement.

The cost of waiting varied across the provinces, in part because wait times vary across the country, as do average wages. Residents of Saskatchewan faced the highest private cost of waiting per patient of around $2,022, followed by Manitoba at $1,977. Patients in Ontario endured the lowest private cost of waiting of around $867, followed by Quebec at $1,079.

The report authors note that while wait times for non-emergency but medically necessary care fell between 2004 and 2009, wait times have grown since 2009, along with the cost borne by patients.

That means that the private cost of waiting is now two per cent higher than in 2004, after inflation.

“Without sensible health policy reform, waiting will remain a defining characteristic of the Canadian health care experience, and delays, while negatively impacting the health and wellbeing of patients, will also continue to rob patients of valuable time,” Esmail said.

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