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WTA decries stagnation as wait-time improvements stall

There was bleak news for patients June 11 as the Wait Time Alliance (WTA) released its eighth annual report card on the delays Canadians face in their search for medical care.

"Not only has there been no progress over the last year in wait times in any of the five priority areas, but in many instances Canadians are waiting longer now than they were two years ago," said Dr. Chris Simpson, the WTA chair. "Progress has stalled."

Simpson, who has been nominated to become president-elect of the CMA in 2013-14, said the latest WTA findings mean that attempts to deal with long waits for care require "not just a tune-up, but a major overhaul in health care." And if that overhaul is to be completed, he added, all levels of government - including the federal government - will have to participate.

The latest report from the WTA, an umbrella group representing the CMA and 13 specialist organizations, contains a blunt warning about the growing impact patients who need alternate levels of care (ALC) - they are hospitalized, but should be in a long-term-care facility or elsewhere - are having.

"Since the number one risk factor for dementia is age, there is no question that with the aging of Canada's population, its prevalence will increase," said Simpson. "Establishing a national dementia strategy is critical to addressing the rising tide of patients with Alzheimer's disease and other dementia-related conditions, many of who end up in emergency departments and are then admitted to hospital."

Other findings from the 2013 report card include:

  • ALC patients threaten to overwhelm the health care system: "Again this year we urge governments to address the ALC issue, because it would have the biggest impact on reducing wait times for specialty care."
  • There are still significant variations in wait times among provinces and regions, and between high-income and low-income groups: "There must be no 'have-not' Canadians when it comes to access to timely health care services," the report card says. Simpson said factors such as age, education and a patient's sex can also affect access to care.
  • Although some provinces have shown improvement, "national results for 2013 show few signs of progress, which means continued lengthy waits for many Canadians."

The report card says one positive development is the fact all provinces now have web sites to report wait times, "and these sites continue to improve."

In terms of web site reporting, three provinces (Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Ontario) earned grades of A in the 2013 report card, four had grades of B (Nova Scotia, Alberta, Quebec and New Brunswick), while Newfoundland, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island earned grades of C.

In general, though, the 2013 report card focuses on the "backsliding" that has replaced improvements in wait times reported earlier this decade.

It criticizes the lack of government reporting on wait times involving several specialties, including anesthesiology (management of chronic pain) and psychiatry. It also notes that only two provinces - Ontario and Alberta - report on wait times for emergency care.

"Despite many good intentions and efforts, Canadians are still waiting too long to access health care," the 2013 report card concludes. "In many regions, medical specialties and practices, no substantial or sustained progress in reducing waits has been achieved in recent years. Structural change in the Canadian health care system is long overdue if this stagnation is to be overcome."

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