This article was written by Zak Vescera for Regina Leader-Post. Published April 27, 2022. To access the original article, click here.
As of last week about 3 in every 100 Saskatchewan residents was waiting for surgery.
More than 5,600 knee replacements, nearly 4,500 cataract surgeries and about 1,400 hernias.
That’s only part of Saskatchewan’s surgery backlog, a mountain of delayed procedures that ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The numbers tell the story of the province’s surgery backlog, and why it’s expected to take years to overcome.
As of last week 35,156 patients were on Saskatchewan’s surgical waitlist. That’s almost three per cent of the population, or about the population of the City of Prince Albert in the 2021 census.
The backlog has been rising since 2015. In March 2020, before the pandemic hit, it stood at about 25,581 patients.
Over the next two years, it grew by about 37 per cent as COVID-19 forced the government to pause procedures and send staff to intensive care units.
The current total has budged little since a peak of more than 36,000 procedures in December.
Health Minister Paul Merriman told reporters on Monday the total is fluctuating, in part because many patients who need surgery are still being identified.
“There are a number of people out there that haven’t been able to see their general practitioner, haven’t been able to see their specialist to get on the surgery list because of COVID,” Merriman said.
Saskatchewan’s fourth wave of COVID-19 pushed intensive care units to the breaking point.
The province sent nearly 30 critically sick patients to Ontario because it lacked resources at home. It was also forced to suspend many routine surgeries for weeks so doctors, nurses and other staff could focus on treating patients with COVID-19.
In total, the SHA’s report estimates the province performed about 25.7 per cent fewer surgeries between mid-September and December of 2021 compared to a similar period of time before the pandemic. That equals approximately 6,783 surgeries that joined the province’s burgeoning backlog.
Merriman said most surgical services are now running at full speed, but the pandemic is still weighing down the province’s restart, particularly in Regina.
That city’s hospitals are a cornerstone of Saskatchewan’s surgical system. In March 2019, they performed an average of about 433 surgeries a week. The only bigger hub is Saskatoon.
In the week of March 27, Regina’s hospitals only performed about 75.1 per cent of the surgeries they performed in the same week of 2019.
Merriman acknowledged the city’s surgical wards were not yet at their pre-pandemic levels, which he said was due to “mostly human resourcing issues.” Regina is particularly short on operating room nurses, part of a larger shortage of health-care staff that unions say has worsened over the course of the pandemic.
COVID-19 also continues to infect hospital staff. In a normal week, about 13 per cent of SHA employees will miss a shift unexpectedly. Merriman said the latest province-wide weekly absenteeism figures are closer to 15.5 per cent — not significant provincially, but disruptive if those absences are concentrated in a specific centre.
Nearly 9,000 Saskatchewan residents have waited more than a year for a surgical procedure.
More than 45 per cent of them are awaiting orthopedic surgeries like hip or knee replacements — a delay that can result in significant pain for patients and a more complicated surgery.
A further 20.5 per cent are head and neck surgeries.
Saskatchewan’s surgery plan aims to clear the pandemic backlog in three years.
The province also aims to achieve a three-month wait time for all surgical procedures by 2030, a promise it also made during its last push to cut surgery times under former Premier Brad Wall.
This year the province will aim to perform 7,000 more surgeries than it did in 2019 with the help of $21.6 million in the latest provincial budget, plus $20 million that went unspent in previous years.