Talking Points on Health Care #18: Waiting for Medical Care in Canada

The 11th annual survey of Canadian health care waiting lists conducted by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute found that the median waiting time for non-emergency surgery and treatments in Canada increased from 13.1 weeks (3 months) in 1999 to 16.2 weeks (3.7 months) in 2000-01.1

The estimated number of Canadians waiting for medical care also rose from 840,358 in 1999 to 878,008 in 2000-01, or over 2.85% of the total Canadian population of 30.8 million. To put these figures into perspective, if the U.S. had the same health system as Canada almost7.9 million Americans would be waiting for treatment.2

Of the 10 Canadian provinces, Saskatchewan had the longest median waiting time at 28.9 weeks, (6.7 months) and Ontario the shortest at 13.9 weeks (3.2 months).

Among the twelve medical specialties surveyed, the longest waiting times were for ophthalmology (cataract removal, cornea transplant, treatment of glaucoma, etc.) at 27.9 weeks (6.4 months), and orthopedic surgery at 26.4 weeks (6 months). However, in some provinces typical waiting times for some procedures can be more than a year. For example, the median wait for neurosurgery in Manitoba is 66 weeks (15.2 months), while the wait for orthopedic surgery is 67.4 weeks (15.6 months) in Saskatchewan and 70.8 weeks (16.4 months) in New Brunswick.

Nationwide, the shortest waits in Canada were for cancer chemotherapy at 5.0 weeks and radiation therapy at 8.9 weeks (2 months). However, patients needing chemotherapy can expect to wait 10 weeks (2.3 months) in Saskatchewan and 12.6 weeks (2.9 months) in Newfoundland.

Given these waiting times, it is not surprising that Canadian physicians reported in the survey that 1.7% of all their patients instead obtained medical care in another country – presumably most in the U.S. In fact, 5.6% of all Canadians needing radiation therapy for cancer obtained treatment outside of Canada.


1 Walker, Michael and Wilson, Greg, Waiting Your Turn: Hospital Waiting Lists in Canada, The Fraser Institute, Vancouver, 2001. The survey was conducted between December, 2000 and February, 2001. This study can be found at: Waiting times are calculated as the median time spent waiting by patients.

2 2.85374% of the total U.S. population of 276.54 million equals 7,891,739.

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