Thousands of Canadians died while waiting for surgery, research suggests number could be higher

Roughly 17,000 Canadians have died while waiting for surgery or diagnostic scans in 2022-23 but that number could be significantly higher, according to research published by

The report from the think tank shows patients were waiting for procedures that could have “potentially saved their lives” like a heart operation, and procedures that can improve their quality of life, like a hip operation.

It states that 17,032 patients died after waiting anywhere from less than a week to nearly 11 years.

“This is a problem that we’ve seen across Canada, we’ve seen it grow for several years now. It was something that was growing before COVID,” president Colin Craig told CityNews.

“The reality is, unless we see some serious health reform in this country, I think we’re going to continue to see this problem persist.”

The data was collected from freedom of information requests that were made to 33 health care bodies nationwide and was compiled over five years.

Because several provinces only provided partial data, SecondStreet is estimating the actual number of patient deaths in 2022-23 is 31,297. They did so by extrapolating the data provided and applying it across health regions that did not provide data.

In 2023, 101 patients in Ontario died while waiting for heart surgery, with 36 dying after waiting longer than the maximum recommended wait time. Since 2013, there have been 931 cases where Ontario patients died while waiting for heart surgery, with 26 per cent of the patients waiting longer than recommended.

Read More: Estimated 11,000 Ontarians died waiting for surgeries, scans in past year

In Alberta, 179 patients died while waiting for a diagnostic scan in 2023, which is up from the previous year. Sixty-one died while waiting for surgeries.

However, health bodies like Alberta Health Services (AHS) say a reason for cancelling a procedure isn’t always tracked and may not be recorded by all staff.

This is also the case with Manitoba’s Shared Health Services, which has only provided data for cases where patients died while waiting for heart surgery.

“We certainly can see that it’s a growing problem. And it’s certainly a reason for concern,” Craig said.

Health care needs more than funds

The report also states that health care costs per person have risen substantially from $1,714 in 1992-93 to $5,607 in 2022-23. Craig says the spending has grown well above inflation, and it “keeps getting worse and worse and worse.”

“We have some very good nurses and doctors that are in the system, they are trying hard. But the problem is the structure of the system itself is not set up properly to produce great results for Canadian patients,” Craig explained.

An Angus Reid Survey published in October asking Canadians about funding from the government shows 60 per cent of respondents believe there are greater issues that money can’t solve, and 68 per cent believe health care in Canada has worsened over the past decade.

“There’s so many tragic stories emerging in this country, it’s not a partisan issue. We’re seeing it doesn’t matter which provincial parties are in power, it’s just the reality of the structure of the Canadian health-care system, it’s not set up properly to deliver great results for patients,” Craig said.

“So until we see health reform, I think we’re going to continue to see a lot of these stories emerge.”

Watch: Overhaul of Alberta healthcare: AHS to be split up into four areas

The Government of Alberta announced the reformation of AHS and its decentralization into four branches of health, which are primary care, acute care, continuing care, and mental health and addictions.

It also stated that $57 million will be spent over the next three years to enable family doctors and nurse practitioners to help more people, with each provider being eligible for up to $10,000 a year.

Craig says he remains optimistic it will have a positive impact on patient care.

“But you know, I think we need to go further as a country to really start thinking outside the box, looking at some of the policies from Europe and other jurisdictions that can really improve care for the patients.”

SecondStreet.Org notes the data is underreported as it does not cover the entirety of Canada, as partial data it acquired came from 12 health bodies, which cover more than 73 per cent of Canada’s health care population.

-With files from Dione Wearmouth and Lauryn Heintz

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