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As Alberta now realizes, private clinics are the best way to tackle long waitlists

July 22, 2020

Alberta is on the right track with a bill that will make it easier for private surgical clinics to be established, setting the example for other provinces.

Across Canada, people are stuck on waitlists for two years or more for medically necessary operations. I am not talking about cosmetic surgery, but instead procedures such as cataracts and knee replacements, the latter operation being one that low-priority patients in Ontario wait up to 195 days to receive, according to an estimate from Health Quality Ontario.

Amid COVID-19, people are waiting months and even years for these essential operations, with their quality of life eroding as they linger in pain, unable to work or enjoy activities the rest of us take for granted.

This national tragedy cannot be allowed to continue.

The Canada Health Act stipulates that provinces must provide timely and accessible care to every Canadian citizen, a standard none are currently meeting. So I’m glad to see that Alberta is taking steps to take the pressure off its provincial system by facilitating the opening of private clinics to perform some operations.

According to a CBC story, “Bill 30, the Health Statutes Amendment Act, proposes to cut approval times for private surgical facilities, allow the ministry to contract directly with doctors and allow private companies to take over the administrative functions of physician clinics.”

This must be music to the ears of Albertans with loved ones on waiting lists, who live with endless pain as they await their operations.

Of course, there are those who don’t want any change from the status quo, such as an Edmonton pediatrician who is quoted as saying, “this is the start of further privatization of the health-care system.”

Please, stop with the fearmongering. As a nation, we need to start thinking about more innovative ways to deal with our hospital backlogs. The addition of accredited private clinics to handle specialized procedures will only enhance our public system, making it more efficient for everyone.

Private clinics that bill the province for each procedure they perform have already proven successful. For example, the 89-bed Shouldice Clinic in Toronto has been repairing hernias since 1945, with provincial health plans picking up the costs.

A lung specialist quoted in the story expresses concern private clinics will “compromise the care of patients in Alberta.” More fake news. She must know that any private clinic that receives funding from the government to perform medically necessary surgery will be staffed by surgeons who are accredited and regulated by the province they operate in.

In fact, the same surgeons who now work in our hospitals will also work in these private clinics, so it is simply wrong to say the level of health care will be eroded if private clinics are allowed to be established.

I was pleased to read cautious support for these clinics from the president of the Alberta Medical Association. “Most notable is the increased opportunity for Albertans to participate in their health-care system,” stated Dr. Christine Molna in a letter to members. “There is an increased focus on patient-centred care.”

According to the story, her letter also “points to clear distress in the profession.”

Distress indeed. Physicians desperately want to use their medical expertise to do everything from repairing joints to removing cataracts, but they are being held back by the limited operating room space available in our hospitals. By establishing free-standing clinics that specialize in just one area of medicine, provinces can take some of the pressure off our over-burdened public health system, benefitting those who need it the most.

If provinces embrace the idea of hospitals outsourcing certain procedures and paying for them out of the public purse, that would be a win/win for both patients and taxpayers.

Our health-care system does not need more money; it just requires better ideas for processing the backlog of patients across the system.

Alberta is really on to something with Bill 30, so I hope it passes and then is mimicked across the country. We should not fear innovation, especially when the result will be a health-care system that is truly timely, accessible and universal, as medicare’s founders wanted all along.

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