The B.C. government plans to spend $250 million in the next year in an attempt to reduce its surgical wait list that includes at least 30,000 needed surgeries that were put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic prompted the government to postpone about 14,000 surgeries, while an additional 16,000 would have been scheduled but were not because the government wanted to ensure that there were sufficient empty hospital beds to accommodate any potential spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations. A further 24,000 patients could also need surgeries but are without a referral to be on the waiting list as a result of not being able to see specialist doctors as a result of the pandemic.
Health Minister Adrian Dix said that the government is today (May 7) starting to reach out to patients to see if they are ready and willing to have surgeries performed. The government will also today start screening these patients and putting in place plans to conduct those surgeries, he added.
He then expects to start conducting these surgeries on May 18, increasing surgery capacity during the next four weeks to what Dix considers to be a level near what it was pre-pandemic.
Executing this plan will include increasingly contracting private clinics to perform work for patients who do not need to stay overnight.
By May 31, the government expects that all contracted private clinics would be operating at maximum capacity.
The government’s plan is in June to ramp up hiring new nurses, as well as other needed hospital personnel, so that by June 15 it is at its pre-COVID-19 surgical capacity. The hiring is expected to include "all" nursing graduates who apply for work," said Dix.
Between June 15 and October 15, the government plans to increase capacity for surgeries even more by extending hours during the week and adding weekend surgeries. There are no plans to use operating rooms 24 hours per day because of challenges in staffing, Dix said.
The government will, however, reach out to surgeons and other needed personnel to try to have them not take summer vacations in addition to agreeing to work weekends. Dix said that he believes that these professionals "profoundly care" about reducing the backlog in needed surgeries and that there would be "enormous buy-in" for doing whatever is necessary.
"Our surgery-renewal plan beginning this month is going to be a massive renewal," said Dix. "It is a hugely ambitious plan that will keep up with new demands for new surgeries and clear the backlog created by COVID-19 over the next 17 to 24 months."
If all of the government’s strategies are executed as intended, it estimates that it could eliminate the backlog created by the 30,000 extra surgeries related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The priority for the surgeries is to focus first on what the government considers “urgent” patients. Most of those are likely to have cancer-related conditions, while others are likely to have cardiovascular problems. Other patients prioritized are those who have been waiting more than twice the clinical benchmark wait time for their condition, according to the government.
Dix said that the system could then remain in place in order to chip away at the ongoing waiting list for surgeries.
“By reducing and eliminating this backlog, we will then have built a system that can continue to reduce wait times in the period that follows,” he said.
“What we’re doing here is, in these extraordinary circumstances, putting extraordinary measures in place, but measures that will have a positive impact for years and years and years to come, and it will build up our capacity to reduce the very wait time we’re talking about.”
Dix's decision to postpone scheduled surgeries was able to open up around 4,000 hospital beds and, as of earlier this week, bring hospital-bed occupancy province-wide down to around 64.5%, from around 103% pre-pandemic.
He called the move "absolutely the right call," and even people who in the past have been adversarial with the government agree.
"I think he had to," Cambie Surgery Centre medical director Brian Day told Business in Vancouver. Day has been involved in a lawsuit aimed at overturning part of B.C.'s Medicare Protection Act to allow doctors to bill patients directly, as well as to bill government for other work.
"It would have been a complete disaster if we’d had one of those so-called surges [in COVID-19 hospitalizations,]" Day said.