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More than 52,000 Canadians travelled abroad for health care last year, study finds

Daniel Katz, Postmedia News 

March 17, 2015

The number of Canadian patients who travelled abroad in 2014 to receive non-emergency medical treatment increased 25% from 2013, according to a study conducted by the Fraser Institute, a Canadian independent research and education organization.

In 2014, 52,513 Canadians travelled beyond our borders to seek medical treatment, compared with 41,838 in 2013. The numbers suggest that the Canadian health care system could not comply with the needs and demands of a substantial number of Canadian patients, according to the study.

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Matt Gurney: A 15-month wait for ‘urgent’ medical care. Thanks, Ontario!

Last year, trying to explain how Canada’s system works to American friends, I told them that the Canadian single-payer system was great at saving your life from a conventional illness or injury. The flip side of that, though, is that if you’re not quite in danger of death, you can be in for a rough ride. Outside of a few specific areas targeted for aggressive wait time reductions — things like knee and hip replacements, MRIs, cataract surgery and the like — you can be pretty much screwed if you need a test or procedure for anything less than a life-threatening condition. The system’s limited resources will always, naturally, go to those most in need. So you’ll wait.

That’s what I used to say, anyway. Now, I’m less sure the system could even effectively save your life.

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The percentage of Canadian patients who travelled abroad to receive non-emergency medical care was 1.1 per cent, an increase compared to 0.9 per cent in 2013.

The study speculates as to why Canadian patients left the country to pursue treatment elsewhere. The reasons include a lack of available resources and equipment in their home jurisdiction; and the desire for more advanced health care facilities and technology.

The study suggests that another reason could be the long wait-times within the Canadian health care system and suggests this as another possible reason for patients leaving. In a 2014 study by the Commonwealth Fund, a private American health care reform and international health policy organization, Canada had the second-worst overall ranking among the health care systems of 11 industrialized nations and ranked last in the wait-time category. Only the American health care system ranked worse overall.

The Fraser Institute study suggests that, on average, a Canadian patient waits 9.8 weeks to receive medical treatment after seeing a specialist. Tack on the average wait time of 8.5 weeks from when their doctor refers them to the specialist, and the wait time is more than four months.

“That a considerable number of Canadians travelled abroad and paid to escape the well-known failings of the Canadian health care system speaks volumes about how well the system is working for them,” said the study.

In 2014 the biggest number patients who travelled abroad came from Ontario (26,252), with about half the total. Second was British Columbia (9,799) and third was Quebec (6,284). The province with the smallest number was Prince Edward Island (48). However, in 2013, P.E.I. only had 8 patients leave to receive treatment, indicating a 500% increase in 2014.

Bacchus Barua, a senior economist at the Fraser Institute and author of the study, says Ontario’s large population only partly explains why the number is so large.

“There’s 1.3 per cent of your patients receiving treatments abroad, then you combine that with the total number of procedures that are performed in the province as well,” he said. “So it’s not wholly explained just by the fact that there are more people in Ontario, but it is partially explained by that.”

British Columbia had the highest proportion of its patients travel abroad to receive non-emergency medical treatment in 2014 (1.6 per cent), while Alberta had the second largest proportion (1.5 per cent) and Ontario had the third (1.3 per cent). The province with the lowest proportion of its patients travel abroad was P.E.I. (0.4 per cent).

Neurosurgeons reported the highest proportion of patients travelling abroad for treatment (2.6 per cent), while plastic surgery reported the lowest (0.3 per cent), indicating a gap in the field of neurosurgery treatment in this country.

 

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