Interior Health is resuming elective surgeries beginning May 19. (Black Press Media Files)

Alberta officials target surgical backlog

By the end of the year, as many surgeries will be provided as before the pandemic

By Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times

A backlog of non-urgent surgeries exists in Alberta due to COVID-19 shutdowns, but the province is working to increase surgical capacity to catch up.

Non-urgent, scheduled and elective surgeries were postponed across the province in response to the ongoing pandemic on March 17. Urgent and emergency surgeries, as well as oncology and scheduled caesarean (c-section) procedures were said not to be affected.

This policy was maintained until May 4, when it was announced that non-urgent, scheduled surgeries would resume. However, this interruption resulted in a backlog of about 25,000 surgeries for Albertans.

The province is now making moves to reduce the backlog and expedite health care into the future by expanding surgical capacity, announced Tyler Shandro, minister of health, during a Sept. 11 news conference.

AHS has already completed about 90 per cent of the cases of non-urgent scheduled surgeries that were cancelled during the shutdown in the spring. Surgical capacity is now at about 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels and is increasing, he said.

By the end of the year, as many surgeries will be provided as before the pandemic. Then, after the new year, hospitals and publicly funded chartered surgical facilities will expand capacity beyond pre-pandemic levels, resulting in reduced wait times.

The province is working to fund more surgeries, including lower-risk surgeries in rural hospitals, and expand surgical capacity by creating new chartered surgical facilities and expanding existing ones, which will happen in both urban and rural communities across the province.

Chartered surgical facilities are private, non-hospital health facilities managed offering publicly funded procedures, of which there are currently 43 in Alberta performing about 15 per cent of surgeries.

“This work with the chartered surgical facilities is key, since they will have the capacity to do more surgeries at lower cost,” said Shandro.

The province is seeking requests for proposals (RFPs) from operators to expand or open facilities. A request for expressions of interest yielded 42 submissions from existing chartered surgical facilities or new operators to provide up to 200,000 more surgeries across Alberta, according to a government news release.

New grants are also being provided to six First Nations, including Siksika Nation, to develop proposals under the RFP. “We want to work with any partner who wants to work with us to increase capacity in the publicly funded health system and to reduce costs,” said Shandro.

Developing surgical capacity in Siksika Nation has been in the works to better meet the needs of its aging population that now must travel to seek health care, explained Ouray Crowfoot, chief of Siksika Nation. “We’ve been looking at initiatives and joint ventures, and we’ve had these business plans for some time now, on how we can move forward with a surgical facility,” he said.

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