Patients take flight: Albertans look elsewhere to avoid surgery wait times

by Jody Robbins, Calgary Herald

Could you, would you, leave the comforts of home and fly to another country for medical treatment? An increasing number of Albertans are doing just that, especially for hip and knee replacement surgeries that have wait lists up to 18 months long.

One Albertan, Linda White, wasn’t keen to put her life on hold, waiting for hip replacement surgery. “I was in excruciating pain and could hardly walk,” she says. It took 10 months for White to get in for a consultation with the surgeon. Then she was told she’d have to wait another year for the surgery.

According to the latest data from Alberta Health Services, the average wait time for a knee replacement in Calgary is one year. For hip replacements, it’s an average of 41 weeks. And approximately 30 per cent of Canadians who required a hip or knee replacement didn’t have their procedure done within the recommended wait times in 2018, according to new data released by the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

White’s family doctor discouraged her from looking into surgery abroad, but this former registered nurse went ahead anyway. After seeing an ad for Health City Cayman Islands in a medical journal, she contacted their Canadian office which arranged for a complimentary consultation with an orthopedic surgeon from the Joint Commission International accredited hospital.

“My doctor told me, if you have complications, the surgeons here will have no idea what’s been done. But then we had a conference call with my doctor and the Cayman surgeon and he was reassured, plus all the records were transferable,” says White.

Besides the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, Mexico and the United States are popular destinations for Canadians to seek out private health-care facilities., a Canadian think-tank, used Statistics Canada data to calculate that Canadian patients made at least 217,500 trips to other countries in 2017 specifically for health care. If you include those travelling with the patients, the total rises to 369,700.

“These Stats Canada numbers are significant, which we look at from an economic lens to determine how much money is leaving Canada. One way the government could keep dollars and jobs here would be to continue to fund our public health-care system while relaxing restrictions on what private clinics can provide. That’s what the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other developed countries do,” says president Colin Craig.

The Fraser Institute reports that wait times are the leading reason Canadians cite for medical travel. When your options are waiting (often on painkillers) with limited mobility, it’s not surprising more and more Canadians are investigating surgery abroad. But it’s not without its risks, warns Janet Bristeir, a registered nurse and author of Medical Tourism: Surgery for Sale!


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