National Newswatch

TORONTO — Ontario's surgeons may be asked to start working weekends in order to clear a major backlog of procedures delayed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the premier said Thursday as he pledged funding to help tackle the issue.

Doug Ford's comments came nine days after modelling research painted a stark picture of surgery wait times across the province.

The data, published earlier this month in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, suggested more than 148,000 procedures were postponed between mid-March, when elective operations were cancelled due to the lockdown, and May, when those restrictions eased. Researchers estimated the backlog would take at least a year and a half to clear.

Ford pegged the backlog at more than 180,000 on Thursday as he said government officials are working on solutions to address the issue.

"We're working with our minister of health and our health table to see if we can open up a lot of these surgery rooms," Ford said at a news conference. "We have funding to ask the docs ... and the hospitals to open up surgeries, start working Saturdays and Sundays to get rid of the backlog."

The proposal came as news to Dr. David Willliams, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, who declined to comment on the idea but said the health command table co-ordinating much of the province's pandemic response is discussing ways to address the backlog.

Ministry of Health spokesman Travis Kann said a "fall preparedness plan" that's currently in development will contain unspecified measures to address the surgery waitlist, adding details would be released in the coming weeks.

The modelling research, published Sept. 1, did not account for additional physician hours in its projections. But the data suggested the wait list could be eliminated in 84 weeks if practitioners hit a target of 717 procedures per week.

Its authors said the data could play an important role in health planning moving forward.

"The magnitude of the surgical backlog from COVID-19 raises important implications for planning for the recovery phase and for possible second waves of the pandemic in Ontario," study co-author Dr. Jonathan Irish, a surgeon at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, said when the research was published.

The researchers argued health systems "cannot go back to business as usual'' if they want to manage the impact on patients, and must find innovative solutions to prepare for future waves of the novel coronavirus.

Ford did not indicate how much money the government has earmarked to cover the cost of additional surgeon hours or operating room time, simply saying "the funds are there."

NDP health-care critic France Gelinas argued that finances, rather than working hours, will be the key to addressing the backlog.

She said doctors and other medical professionals already work weekends and other statutory holidays, calling the idea of asking them to put in additional time "disrespectful."

The problem, she said, lies with underfunded hospitals that are unable to cover the cost of additional operating room time or provide enough patient beds.

Gelinas noted that while surgeons can bill the provincial health insurance program for their time, the rest of the operating room team is paid for by the hospital.

"It's not very useful to disrespect surgeons by pretending they're taking weekends off when they are not," she said. "Fund our hospitals properly and they will open up more OR time, work on the backlog and make sure that we address the overcrowding in our hospitals."

The Ontario Hospital Association said health-care facilities are already using weekends and extended hours to help address patient needs.

"This new normal will require additional hospital capacity in operating room time, beds and staffing," association president Anthony Dale said in a statement.

Dr. Samantha Hill, a Toronto-based cardiac surgeon and president of the Ontario Medical Association, said the backlog poses complex issues that won't be easily solved.

"You're looking not just at whether doctors are prepared to come in and work more hours, but is the system prepared to support that?" Hill said, citing the massive teams of specialists required to keep operating rooms functioning.

"The solutions that we come forward with have to be really systemic in nature and very well thought through. Doctors are already working 50 to 60 hours a week, if not more. It's not solely through our willingness to operate that we're going to solve the backlog."   

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2020.

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version gave an incorrect figure for the number of days since the modelling research was published.

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