Six years after governments promised to reduce wait times for important medical procedures, many Canadians still face long waits for care, concludes the latest report from the Wait Time Alliance.

In its annual report card, the Wait Time Alliance said that while some progress in being made to cut wait times in priority areas, more work remains to be done in many other areas of specialty care.

The WTA says there's been some progress in cutting wait times in five clinical areas deemed priorities by governments:

  • joint replacement (hip and knee)
  • sight restoration (cataract surgery)
  • heart (coronary artery bypass graft)
  • diagnostic imaging (MRI and CT)
  • cancer care (radiation therapy)

But the WTA notes -- as it has in the past -- that information on waits for procedures outside those five areas are a virtual "black hole," with information scarce or non-existent.

"When it comes to wait times, Canadians are selling themselves short," the report reads.

"Canadians deserve timely access to health care and accurate information on how long they can expect to wait for a consultation, test or procedure. Unfortunately, Canada is one of the few developed countries with universal health care systems where patients face long waits for necessary care."

For the first time, the report includes information on wait times for pediatric surgery. The group found that, in 2009, thousands of Canadian children waited longer for their surgeries than medical experts recommend.

While about 73 per cent of children in Canada received their procedures within the benchmark times, that still left more than 17,000 children waiting longer than they should.

Waits for dental procedures such as fillings, ophthalmology (driven by patients receiving surgery for "wandering eye") and plastic surgery (driven by patients receiving cleft lip and/or cleft palate surgery) proved to be the areas of greatest need, with the lowest percentage of cases completed within their benchmark.

"Since physical development in children and youth occurs very quickly, especially in the earliest years, delaying surgery could have a lifelong impact on these young patients and their families," the report notes.

Once again, the WTA notes problems with how wait times are assessed. It says that too often, most wait-time reporting measures the wait from a specialist's decision to treat a patient to the time the patient receives that treatment. But, the group notes, that's never the whole picture.

"Patients can also face long waits from family physician/general practitioner (GP) referral to specialist consultation or multiple waits for several tests and procedures associated with a single care pathway," the report notes.

The WTA says it has noted before that there are often long waits in both the GP-to-specialist-consultation stage and specialist-consultation-to-treatment stage. Furthermore, 5 million Canadians do not have a regular family physician/GP and may have to wait longer at the beginning of their health care journey.

The WTA comprises 14 national organizations whose members are directly involved in providing a wide range of specialty medical care to patients. It was formed in 2004 to hold governments accountable for addressing lengthy wait times endured by patients throughout the health care system.