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Surgical backlog in Manitoba balloons to more than 161,000 cases: Doctors Manitoba

Doctors say the pandemic backlog for diagnostic and surgical procedures keeps growing in Manitoba, which has set a timeline for repealing all pandemic restrictions.

The latest data, released Thursday by Doctors Manitoba, estimates the backlog is now 161,585 cases.

That’s a surge of 7,748 since last month, reflecting the disruptive impact of the Omicron wave on hospitals in Manitoba, says a news release from the physicians’ organization, which has been pushing the province for a plan to clear the backlog.

“The Omicron wave has been hugely disruptive to hospital care in Manitoba,” Dr. Kristjan Thompson, president of Doctors Manitoba and an emergency medicine physician at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg, said during a news conference.

More than 2,500 COVID-19 patients have been admitted to hospital during the latest wave, which averages out to about 40 per day, he said.

“This is higher than any previous wave we’ve seen during the pandemic. It has put our hospitals under tremendous strain [and] it’s disrupted surgeries and many, many diagnostics tests.”

The backlog breakdown now consists of:

  • 52,327 surgeries, up 2,168 over the last month.
  • 42,524 diagnostic imaging procedures — MRIs, CT scans, ultrasounds, a decrease of 35 cases since last month.
  • 66,786 other diagnostic procedures, including allergy tests, endoscopies, mammograms, sleep disorder studies and lung function tests, an increase of 5,615.

The lung function tests were newly added to the backlog estimate based on feedback from physicians and their patients, Doctors Manitoba said.

They include a variety of specialized tests used to diagnose, treat and monitor acute and chronic lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma and pulmonary fibrosis, and shortness of breath after COVID. These tests are also used to assess fitness for surgery, including for lung cancer.

Based on Doctors Manitoba’s analysis, the estimated backlog of lung function tests as of January 2022 is 8,848 and the volume of tests completed during the pandemic appears to have decreased about 40 per cent.

Stacie Simonson is one of those who’s waiting for help that she hopes will finally come in a month. The 29-year-old from Rosser, Man., first sought help for lung issues she experienced last June.

She now anticipates she will have a pulmonary function test in March, nine months after seeking help for symptoms at a hospital.

Stacie Simonson, 29, first sought help for lung issues she experienced last June that continue today. She now anticipates she will have a pulmonary function test in March, nine months after seeking help for symptoms at a hospital. (Submitted by Stacie Simonson)

“I would like more than anything to have some sort of explanation for what’s going on,” she said. “It’s been frustrating.”

Simonson has experienced “significant” chest pain and shortness of breath, which forced her to leave a job that required heavy physical labour. She hasn’t been able to work since June 1.

She is never sure what will trigger the chest pain or what might happen when it comes on. So she’s been advised to stay home and rest.

She’s also on a wait list to see a cardiologist and rheumatologist to see if they can help.

“I hope something gets figured out soon to improve on the wait times. My condition might turn out to be something harmless, which I’m hopeful for, but not everybody will be that lucky,” Simonson said.  

“I look forward to being able to go for a walk again, as well as being able to return to work. I actually miss work.”

The total backlog has grown by more than 16,000 cases since November — a number NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara calls “deeply troubling.”

“The … [Progressive Conservative government’s] failure to take care of families living with pain and uncertainty is inexcusable and it will leave a stain on their record that Manitobans will not forget,” they said in a news release Thursday.

Asagwara accused the government of doing “nothing to address this problem but make empty promises,” and said health care must be the “number one priority.”

Real-time data needed: Doctors Manitoba

Doctors Manitoba has pressed the province to create a task force to provide oversight and address the backlog, set a target date to clear it, and provide comprehensive, monthly reporting to monitor that progress.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon announced in December that a task force would be established.

A shift in colon cancer screening to a diagnostic process called fecal immunochemical testing, which is expected to reduce the need for endoscopies, is among the steps being taken, the province said in mid-January.

The task force is also developing an agreement with the Maples Surgical Centre in Winnipeg and other local partners to start tackling a backlog of roughly 3,000 gynecological procedures beginning in early February.

The province also planned to send some patients awaiting spinal surgery to Fargo, N.D., for their procedures. Gordon called it an interim measure while Manitoba builds its own surgical capacity.

So far, the province has not yet done its own public reporting of surgical and diagnostic backlogs. Until that happens, Doctors Manitoba said it intends to continue to update its online dashboard on a monthly basis.

Dr. Kristjan Thompson, president of Doctors Manitoba, urges people to take pressure off the health-care system by continuing to be prudent and to follow medical public health advice, even if it’s no longer reflected in government restrictions. (Zoom)

“This is something we’ve been calling for since June,” Thompson said.

In order to create its backlog estimates, Doctors Manitoba combines provincial and Canadian data it can access with direct information from the more than 4,000 physicians it represents.

“They’re our best guess in terms of the massive scope of this problem, but it’s not 100 per cent accurate,” Thompson said, adding what is needed is real-time data.

“If we don’t know the actual numbers, it’s difficult to implement plans to address the backlog,” he said. “And [we] won’t know if what we’re doing is actually helping.”

Thompson hopes the government task force will make a concrete difference, rather than just filing a report that will get tucked onto a shelf. But to do so, the province needs to provide resources and supports that allow the task force to “be action-oriented,” he said.

The patients waiting “aren’t numbers, these are people who are waiting in fear and uncertainty,” he said.

“Some are waiting in pain. They’re suffering. So we need to do everything we can to ensure that these patients get … the treatments that they need, as soon as possible.”

Stay COVID cautious: Thompson

While the Omicron wave is receding and restrictions are gradually being lifted “our hospitals are still in a tenuous position,” Thompson said.

“We all play a role in solving this massive surgical and diagnostic backlog”

He urged people to take pressure off the health-care system by continuing to be prudent and to follow medical public health advice, even if it’s no longer reflected in government restrictions.

“This doesn’t mean you have to lock down your house, but it does mean being COVID cautious just a little while longer,” he said.

That includes staying home if you’re ill, even if the symptoms are mild, wearing a mask when indoors around people from other households, distancing if you can, and getting vaccinated and boosted, Thompson said.

While people are looking forward to reconnecting with others, he urges them not to rush, and “keep your contact at a manageable number.”

Aside from protecting each other and the hospitals, theses measures will help avoid a backslide in cases that could result in restrictions being reimposed, he said.

“We are still at a critical stage with COVID. I’m still seeing patients die from this disease,” Thompson said. “It is a virus that is infecting and evolving and will continue to do so.”

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