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Canada's Healthcare Wait Times Are Grossly Over Exaggerated
Even when wait times do exist, they are far preferable to those in the U.S.
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Although the jungle of insurance companies, healthcare providers, and government programs we call “the American Healthcare System” is historically unpopular, it is still occasionally defended on the basis that it’s superior to the alternatives. Though our system is more expensive and provides worse outcomes than more socialized healthcare systems, many argue that the American system provides quicker access to care, specifically in comparison to Canada’s single-payer Medicare.
It’s become something of a “fact” amongst Americans that although our northern neighbors have lower costs and better results, they have to wait longer for services. In theory, not only do these wait times cause Canadians to live with nagging ailments, but they can even be deadly: If Grandpa has to wait a year for heart surgery, he might not be able to survive that long.
This issue of Canadian healthcare wait times is a common concern amongst Americans, one that scares voters away from more collectivist methods of administering healthcare. But as the data shows, the issue of Canada’s wait times is greatly overexaggerated in comparison to those we experience in the United States.
The Canadian Healthcare System
Canada’s healthcare system is similar to American Medicare in more than just name. It’s a single-payer system with funding split between the Canadian federal government and the 13 provincial governments. It is the provincial governments (akin to U.S. state governments) that make decisions on how to best allocate healthcare funds.
For patients, the Canadian healthcare experience is very similar to that of Americans enrolled in Medicare. For all our fears about “socialism,” American Medicare is actually (mostly) a single-payer system, in that the government pays 80% of healthcare costs for enrollees. The Canadian healthcare system is quite literally, Medicare-For-All. It covers 100% of costs, regardless of age. Were America to drop its Medicare enrollment age to 0 and expand coverage from 80% to 100%, it would be nearly identical to the Canadian system.
Like American Medicare, some things are not covered by Canadian Medicare, such as glasses and dentistry. Still, about 70% of all Canadian medical spending is covered by the government. As Canada has a single-payer healthcare system and not a fully socialist system, many providers (such as family doctors) are private businesses that collect payments from the government for their services. These payments are negotiated by the government in advance, one way that Canada keeps healthcare costs low. Most Canadian hospitals are state-owned, meaning Canada’s system has a combination of public and private healthcare providers.
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Overall, the system works pretty well. Canadians have expressed concerns about the shock COVID placed on the system (which is common across countries with various systems), but there’s a long history of public support for the healthcare system, which remains today.
But What About Wait Times?
If you were to learn about the Canadian healthcare system in casual conversation, you would likely think that it took Canadians years to get necessary care. But this is not what the data shows. And, unlike the American healthcare system, the Canadian system actually has data.
Along with other healthcare metrics, wait time data is publicly available on the Canadian government’s website. As the provincial governments are the ones actually administering healthcare, time to treatment varies between location and procedure.
For the sake of an example, I looked up the wait times for a standard knee replacement in Ontario, the most populated city in Canada. For such a procedure, patients would be prioritized on an urgency scale of 1 to 4. Priority 1 patients are seen immediately (no wait time), priority 2 patients are seen within 30 days, priority 3 patients are seen within 90 days, and priority 4 patients are seen within 182 days. As of writing, 85% of knee-replacement patients in the Ontario province were seen within these targeted timeframes.
It’s difficult to compare time to treatment directly to the American healthcare system, as many Americans are prohibited from getting any treatment by cost, meaning their wait time is their entire life. When discussing American wait times, one must consider not only the availability of providers (which is the sole concern of Canadian patients), but how long it will take to save up for the surgery, the cost of living during recovery, and whether or not they’ll be able to afford the procedure at all. Approximately 18% of Americans can’t afford their necessary care, meaning for almost one-fifth of the country, the wait time is infinite. With all these factors in play, it’s impossible to conclude the exact “American wait time” for a knee replacement, though most Americans that need these procedures have to wait too long, which causes debilitating effects.
Like any other aspect of healthcare, wait times must be discussed in the context of the healthcare system and public good in totality. Increased access is the biggest healthcare concern for Canadians, though they still are largely satisfied with their system. Comparatively, Americans are dissatisfied with our system, and for good reason. We spend about twice as much on healthcare as Canada and yet our life expectancy is still four years lower.
Additionally, about half of all American adults struggle to afford healthcare costs. 25% report skipping medication or foregoing it entirely due to price exclusivity. Make no mistake: this is a never-ending wait time caused by a for-profit system, and it’s not the only one. Even if they can afford it, it takes Americans about a month to see a dermatologist, just as long as the longest wait time I found on the Canadian site. (Personally, I had to wait 4 months to see a dermatologist in Boston, the medical Mecca of the U.S.)
Not only is the discussion of Canadian wait times drastically over-exaggerated, but to the extent they do exist, they appear to be a small price to pay for the overall better availability and results of healthcare that Canadians enjoy.
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Have you ever had to wait for healthcare in the U.S.? If so, I’d love to hear about it. Share your story in the comments below.