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Health minister unveils $324M surgical recovery plan to clear pandemic backlog

Urgent procedure backlog nearly cleared, Ontario announces new funding to manage expected surge in procedures delayed during the pandemic

Anticipating a coming surge in procedures, Ontario today unveiled a $324-million plan to reduce surgical wait times as the health-care system begins to open up.

During a press conference this afternoon, Health Minister Christine Elliott and Matthew Anderson, the president and CEO of Ontario Health, provided an update on how the province is working through the current surgical backlog and how it plans to manage an expected surge in postponed medical procedures due to the pandemic.

Elliott said the province has worked through 76 per cent of the surgical wait list, covering the period of March 2020 to March 2021. As well, the minister said 99.3 per cent of the most urgent procedures have been completed.

“We are in a much better situation than we were months ago,” Elliott said.

The backlog of urgent surgeries was being worked on throughout the past year and a half, but as pandemic restrictions relax and the health-care system opens up more, officials are anticipating a surge in referrals for, in particular, preventative screening procedures like mammograms that were postponed due to the pandemic.

Part of the funding highlighted today will allow care providers to increase their capacity to provide care by as much as 115 per cent to deal with the expected surge. Numbers wise, Elliott said this means an additional 67,000 additional surgeries (including performing procedures on evenings and weekends), an additional 75,000 MRI scans and an additional 60,000 CT scans.

“The surgical recovery plan builds on our commitment to create a better connected health care system, looking at every stage of a patient’s journey, from primary care referral to hospital discharge to recovery at home,” Elliott said.

The plan also includes expanded initiatives and new human resources programs to support health-care workers who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic for nearly 18 months.

“I’m pleased to acknowledge and underscore the incredible efforts made by our health-care providers right across the system to ensure patients received the urgent care they needed most during one of the most difficult times in our system’s history,” Anderson said during the press conference.

Anderson said the province’s ability to respond and adapt during the pandemic shows “what can be done when we’re united under one provincial system,” seemingly referencing the Ontario Health Team model put in place by the Conservative government.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Anderson said, adding officials will be monitoring patient volumes and wait lists closely, and adjusting the plan as necessary.

In terms of dollars, the province provided several examples of where the funding announced today will be spent:

  • Hospital care: A new investment of $300 million from the 2021 Budget dedicated to help the hospital sector recover and perform thousands more surgeries and diagnostic imaging hours, and help reduce wait times.
    • $216 million for hospitals to extend operating room hours into evenings and weekends and perform up to 67,000 additional surgeries on top of the typical volume of 650,000 scheduled surgeries that happen in main operating rooms each year. New surgeries funded may include up to 33,000 new cataracts surgeries, up to 4,300 new orthopedics surgeries and up to 9,000 new paediatrics surgeries.
    • $35 million for MRI and CT imaging, enabling over 75,000 additional hours of MRI scanning and over 60,000 additional hours of CT scanning, on top of the 577,000 hours and 550,000 hours that happen each year, respectively. This represents a 12 per cent overall increase in available hours.
    • $18 million investment in centralized surgical waitlist management to increase use of electronic referrals and support work to enable efficient tracking of surgical information, making better use of specialist and hospital resources and reducing patient wait times.
    • $1 million for surgical smoothing coaching from an expert team of experienced surgeons and administrators to support knowledge sharing and best practices to optimize the use of operating rooms at key high-volume hospitals.
    • $30 million for the new Surgical Innovation Fund to help hospitals in each region of the province to address barriers and increase their surgical output. Approval for funding will be released in September 2021 for immediate implementation this year.
  • Increase health system capacity through community alternatives to hospital care: A new investment of up to $24 million to increase volumes of low-risk, publicly funded surgical and diagnostic services in independent health facilities and to support the licensing of new independent health facilities for existing services.