Fraser Forum

Wait times for health care cost Albertans $600 million

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Wait times for health care cost Albertans $600 million

In the spring, Premier Danielle Smith's United Conservative Party won a majority government and now must shift the focus towards governance. Setting priorities is essential for any new government, and the Smith government should prioritize health-care reform and improving the economy. In the run-up to the election, health care emerged as one of the top issues in polls while the economy ranked high among secondary issues.

However, it would be a mistake to view health care and the economy as entirely separate realms of public management. The health-care sector (public and private) constitutes a significant portion of Alberta’s economic activity (9.6 per cent in 2022). And health-care spending by the provincial government accounts for 37 per cent of Alberta’s total program spending.

Unfortunately, wait times for medical care in the province can impact wages and productivity of individuals (and the economy more generally). A recent study found that an estimated 181,333 Albertans faced a median wait of 19.2 weeks between specialist consultation to receipt of medically necessary care last year. Not only is this wait time longer than the Canadian average (14.8 weeks), it’s almost twice as long as physicians in the province consider clinically reasonable (11.1 weeks).

These wait times can in some cases have serious consequences ranging from pain, stress and poorer medical outcomes. And waiting for care in a reduced physical state can impact the ability of patients to work, leading to economic costs. Indeed, data from Statistics Canada suggest that about 13.2 per cent of patients reported they were adversely affected by their wait for non-emergency surgery in 2013 (the latest year of available data).

Using these data, in conjunction with estimated average weekly wages in the province, the study found that wait times cost Albertans more than $600 million annually in lost wages, averaging approximately $3,300 per waitlisted Albertan.

Of course, the financial impact is just one of the costs associated with the suffering and hardship caused by lengthy wait times and is based only on hours lost during the workweek. There’s also a value to the time people spend waiting in a reduced capacity on evenings and weekends, unable to fully enjoy activities with their families, pursue hobbies or simply be pain free. When considering the value of time outside the traditional work week (evenings and weekend but excluding eight hours of sleep at night), the study estimates that the value of time lost due to waitlists is nearly three times higher ($1.97 billion in Alberta).

And even this is a conservative estimate as it does not consider the 14.1 weeks Albertans had to wait to see a specialist in the first place.

Long wait times for care are widely acknowledged as a significant issue in the province, which is why health-care reform featured prominently in recent polls assessing Albertans' top concerns during the election. It’s important not to overlook how this critical aspect of public management intersects with another pressing concern for voters—the overall performance of the economy.

When people are waiting for care, their ability to work is often compromised. Again, Albertans lost over $600 million in wages and productivity last year alone. Addressing this financial burden, in addition to alleviating the suffering experienced by individuals on waitlists, should serve as a compelling reason for Premier Smith's new government to help reduce wait times for care.

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