Manitoba’s backlog task force highlights wins after criticism from doctors who resigned

Leaders from a Manitoba task force aiming to reduce the pandemic backlog of medical procedures touted their wins on Wednesday, after the team was slammed by two doctors who resigned from advisory roles over concerns around its focus on privatization.

At a news conference Wednesday, Dr. Peter MacDonald said the diagnostic and surgical recovery task force he chairs has eliminated backlogs in 10 of its roughly 30 focus areas and made significant progress in five others, which have been cut by between 47 and 94 per cent.

Dr. Ed Buchel, provincial surgery lead for Shared Health, said the task force is now looking to cut waiting lists that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic to meet national benchmarks.

“There’s no reason for wait-lists in our province. We’re all working towards eliminating those wait-lists, not just our [pandemic] backlog,” Buchel said.

“The backlog was our first focus because it needed to get done, because people could have been injured because of it. People on wait-lists will still not get their best treatment possible. Those have to go away.”

Improved data that will help with the new goal is expected this summer, Buchel said.

WATCH | Task force doctor explains why Manitoba will tackle its wait-lists next:

‘No reason’ for surgical, diagnostic waiting lists in Manitoba, task force doctor says

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Dr. Ed Buchel, provincial surgery lead for Shared Health, says while the Manitoba task force he’s on was created to eliminate the province’s surgical and diagnostic backlogs, work is now underway to also bring waiting lists more in line with national benchmarks.

The update comes after two sleep specialists revealed they had resigned from the task force over concerns that include being left out of decision-making on matters such as a deal to increase diagnostic tests through a private company. 

A timeline signed by task force leaders provided to CBC also noted a proposal submitted by those doctors was rejected by the group, in part because it contained only “minimal private sector involvement,” the document says.

That timeline says a “key interim initiative” of the task force is “engaging partners to ensure patients get the care they need more quickly,” and the group “suggested some sleep study patient volume could be addressed through a vendor partnership with Cerebra,” a private company.

Task force executive director Dr. David Matear said Wednesday his group looks at proposals equally and doesn’t “differentiate or provide any advantage” to the private sector.

Following question period at the legislature, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the task force considers private sector involvement if it means speeding up access to procedures.

A spokesperson for Doctors Manitoba, which has spoken out in the past about the province’s backlog, said in an email the advocacy group was encouraged to see progress but discouraged to hear some physicians had faced barriers to their ideas to speed up care.

‘Uniformly positive’ response to out-of-province care

The task force was created in late 2021 to address a backlog of surgeries, tests and diagnostic procedures that ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of its previous plans saw people leave Manitoba for faster care. That includes a plan that has sent over 100 hip and knee patients to northwestern Ontario, Matear said.

But task force leaders said the focus now is on building up the health-care system’s capacity to care for patients within the province.

The response from patients who took Manitoba up on its offer to travel for procedures like spine surgeries has been “uniformly positive,” MacDonald said, but that approach is also expensive.

“We don’t want it to be a permanent solution,” he said.

Buchel said the task force has increased operating room capacity across several parts of the province and expanded capacity to do more procedures in areas like endoscopy and urology.

Those efforts have included buying new equipment for procedures like spine surgery at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre and hiring new surgeons in Winnipeg and Brandon. 

More endoscopies are being done after slate increases in Selkirk, Beausejour, Steinbach and Winnipeg, Buchel said.

More are being done in Flin Flon, with about 50 cases now being handled every month, he said.

Manitoba has also hired two new thoracic surgeons, including its first woman in that role. With only four or five of those specialists in the province, the increase is significant, said Buchel.

There’s also been more of a focus on doing some arthroplasty surgeries as outpatient procedures, including at the Boundary Trails Health Centre.

Buchel said the facility, which is between the cities of Winkler and Morden, has been helping lead that effort, with up to 70 per cent of its arthroplasties done as outpatient procedures.

New Concordia OR delayed

But there have also been setbacks, including delays with a new operating room at Winnipeg’s Concordia Hospital caused by asbestos and supply chain issues, MacDonald said.

That space is now expected to open by the end of June and eventually help Manitoba tackle its hip and knee surgery backlog, which he said he hopes to eliminate sometime next year.

The province has also recruited two new surgeons to help address that backlog: one from outside Manitoba and one from Brandon, whose previous role there has already been filled, officials said.

Uzoma Asagwara, the Opposition NDP’s health critic, said the task force’s announcement ignored the fact that most of the backlogs and waiting lists have not yet been dealt with.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called the update “deeply deceptive” for the same reason, pointing to the provincial budget released last month, which showed the pandemic backlog in pediatrics remained at 100 per cent.

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