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The Incessant Ticking of Hospital Wait Times

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This article provides information about Canada's hospital wait times.

Of all the developed countries, Canada has the unfortunate bragging rights for having some of the longest overall hospital wait times around the globe. These patience-trying queues can be seen across the nation, during visits with physicians, medical specialists, and surgical doctors in emergency rooms.


Hospital wait times infographic
Click to enlarge

On average, a Canadian patient faces a waiting period of a little over 4 hours for ER treatment, based on recent statistics gathered from the ‘Canadian Institute for Health Information’ (which included 11 other countries for comparison, such as the United Kingdom, the U.S., Germany and Australia). Furthermore, one of every ten patients is in line for twice that amount of time. Better than 50 percent of the Canadian residents polled have stated they could not book a same-day or even a next-day appointment with their family physician. A striking 14 percent said they were delayed by more than 3 months to get in for a visit with their designated specialist.

Getting in Line
Starting with basic care, drawn-out hospital wait times trickle down throughout the entire health care network and go beyond annoying and inconveniencing patients looking for treatment. Slow-moving line-ups can entail detrimental consequences on the sufferer, as in prolonged pain and discomfort. When extreme frustration sets in, it often prompts patients to leave without medical attention, placing them no further ahead of the game.

So What Is the Hold Up?
There are typically several different causes contributing to hospital wait times and health care time lags. The following describes the most common sources:

  • Inadequate management of services: Poor coordination of agendas by the medical team, lack of planning, failure to dispatch or carry out orders, and inability to provide critical services can upset what should be a finely-tuned hospital care system. The end result is undesirable congestion in the flow of patient surgeries and treatments.
  • Overbooked family doctors: One of biggest factors affecting hospital waiting periods is the inability for patients to schedule an appointment with their personal physician when treatment is required. Consequently, they must rely on emergency rooms for a quicker fix, which extends the ER waiting queue overall.
  • Understaffed health care facilities: A significant shortage of general practitioners and specialized care providers in any given hospital or health care unit around the country adds days and sometimes months to a patient’s wait for treatment.
  • Administrative delays: Most doctors work by themselves instead of in teams. Consequently, a patient could trudge through days and weeks of referrals and appointments for a specialty procedure that will eventually lead to the surgery date. This process of jumping from physician to physician becomes taxing and time-consuming as the amount of paperwork accumulates, and the patient becomes subject to further postponements.
  • Insufficient home health care funding: The under-financing by the government for home care services forces more and more patients into hospital beds for long-term treatments and stays, putting an added squeeze on walk-in wait times everywhere.

What Can Be Done to Improve the System?
In order to lessen the time a patient spends in line waiting for treatment, significant system-wide changes must be implemented to improve how the Canadian health care structure functions. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Set up universal waiting lists: A grouping of patients awaiting a specific surgical procedure should be organized on a single list for the next available doctor. However, note that such doing does not necessarily solve the problem for patients who wish to receive treatment from a particular surgeon.
  • Place patient care ahead of financial gain: With proper funding for efficient and expedient health care and treatment measures, a patient’s well-being would become top priority again. Moreover, the administration and medical staff’s performance would be enhanced, thereby shortening hospital wait times on the whole.
  • Create a team environment: Instituting medical care teams consisting of doctors, nurses and other health providers could help eradicate much of the time-consuming duplicate paperwork process, improve coordination methods, and maximize the resources available to those involved.
  • Build a better community medical care support system: By developing more public clinic centers and emergency care facilities, routine medical appointments could be handled faster and more efficiently. Additionally, an increase in government resources for long-range home care service could free a substantial number of hospital beds, making them available for the more urgent situations.

Can Longer Waits Be Beneficial?
Over the years, there has been some speculation and research data to support the idea that doing away with hospital wait times in all situations would be impractical. Essentially, the procedure for prioritizing waiting lists as they emerge is based not only on ranking the absolute necessary medical procedures first, but also factoring in the health risks involved as determined by the patient’s doctor. In certain circumstances, a delay in treatment could potentially protect patients from undesirable outcomes, such as having a “rushed” operation which would prove later to have been possibly unnecessary due to a lack of evidence confirming the surgery’s effectiveness.


About the Author:
Adriana Stefania is a freelance writer for Canada Health Insurance. For more information on health insurance for Canadians please visit