CALGARY -- Alberta will expand its use of private facilities as part of its effort to provide 80,000 more surgeries over the next four years to reduce wait times, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced Tuesday.

"By 2023, we'll be doing about 10 per cent more scheduled surgeries than we do now and we'll manage the volume as needed to sustain access at our targets," he said during a press conference at the Southern Alberta Eye Centre.

"We're committing to provide all scheduled surgeries within a certain time based on evidence. For most surgeries, about 70 per cent of them, that will be four months."

In a release, the province said it will look to "non-hospital surgical facilities" as part of the effort to reduce wait times.

According to Shandro, Alberta will become the first province in Canada to meet the national benchmarks for surgical wait times for hip replacements, knee replacements and cataract surgeries. Improved wait times are expected to result from increased reliance on Alberta's 42 non-hospital surgical facilities to conduct publicly-funded day surgeries.

"We'll expand contracts with these specialized facilities including (the Southern Alberta Eye Centre). This centre, and others like it, are valued health partners with the skill, with the expertise, with the capacity to provide many more surgeries at a lower cost than our acute care hospitals."

Shandro says the patient experience will also improve under the new plan.

"We will have an electronic referral system across the province which will triage patients and get them to the right specialist in the shortest time," said Shandro. "Patients will experience consistent, fair and equitable access to surgeries that they need and they'll be able to see where they sit on a waitlist through a public dashboard." 

Officials with Friends of Medicare, a health care advocate group, question whether the UCP government's plan is a precursor to privatization.

"Just as we've seen with previous conservative governments, the minister is once again asking Albertans to accept major changes to their health care system on faith alone, without revealing any of the details as to how this will affect costs or the quality of care to patient," said Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare, in a statement released in response to Shandro's announcement.

"When integral parts of our health care system are contracted out to private companies, the public loses our right to see exactly what Alberta Health Services is paying, or the added costs incurred from contracting out integral parts of our health care as in the case of home care, seniors care, diagnostic imaging and surgeries."

According to an annual Fraser Institute study, Canadians waited an average of 20.9 weeks for medical procedures in 2019, which marks the second longest wait times recorded since measuring began in 1993.

And wait times went up in every province this year compared to last, except for Nova Scotia, where they dropped slightly.

In Alberta, the average wait time was 28 weeks in 2019, compared to 26.1 year ago.

P.E.I. had the longest average wait times in the country at 49.3 weeks, while Ontario and Quebec had the shortest at 16.3 and 16 weeks respectively.

“Across Canada, patients continue to wait for more than four months for medically necessary treatment — a fact that should concern not just patients and their families but also policymakers in Ottawa and across the country,” said Bacchus Barua, associate director of health policy studies at the Fraser Institute and co-author of the study.

The study looked at total wait times for 12 medical specialties — from referral by a family doctor or general practitioner, to consultation with a specialist, to when the patient ultimately receives treatment.

Nationally, wait times were longest for orthopedic surgery at 39.1 weeks, and plastic surgery (28.7 weeks) while the shortest was for medical oncology (4.4 weeks).

“Long wait times for medically necessary treatments increase suffering for patients, decrease quality of life, and in the worst cases, lead to disability or death,” said Barua.

“Policymakers in Ottawa and at the provincial level should review the outdated health policies that are contributing to long wait times for Canadians seeking medical treatments.”

Median wait times in 2019 (in weeks)

  • B.C. 24
  • Alberta 28
  • Saskatchewan 26
  • Manitoba 32.4
  • Ontario 16
  • Quebec 16.3
  • New Brunswick 39.7
  • Nova Scotia 33.3
  • P.E.I. 49.3
  • Newfoundland and Labrador 23.4