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Private surgeons group doubles weekend orthopedic surgeries in Ottawa

Posted: March 1, 2024

(February 28, 2024) By: Elizabeth Payne, Ottawa Citizen

One year after a group of orthopedic surgeons began renting vacant operating rooms on Saturdays at The Ottawa Hospital’s Riverside campus, the group is doubling the number of surgeries it performs there.

Cameron Love, president and CEO of The Ottawa Hospital, said the Academic Orthopedic Surgical Associates of Ottawa (AOAO) has already performed around 500 hip and knee surgical procedures at Riverside. Love said AOAO would do 1,000 more surgeries working two days on weekends.

The group originally performed surgeries on Saturdays.  It began doing surgeries on Sundays as well last September.

AOAO is also applying to the provincial government to build a standalone surgical centre in Ottawa where it plans to eventually do the surgeries, said Love. The province is expanding for-profit licensed clinics to perform health procedures, including surgeries, outside of hospitals.

Provincial health officials say the expansion will cut surgical wait times and free hospitals to perform more complex surgeries. Health-care advocates, though, point out that across the province, hospital operating rooms sit vacant on weekends, late afternoons and evenings. Research from other provinces suggests private surgeries cost the health system more.

Love says funding for AOAO’s surgeries goes through the hospital and will continue to even after AOAO sets up an independent surgical site.  Weekend surgeries are less expensive than those performed at the hospital, according to an earlier statement from the hospital posted to its website, adding the cost of hip or knee surgery is around $8,000 at TOH but the cost of doing the same surgery through AOAO is $6,400. The difference, the hospital says, is reinvested in the hospital.

Love said the orthopedic surgeries were one cost “efficiency” the hospital was finding. TOH is also working with hospitals in Kemptville and Renfrew to expand operating room access, including for gynecological surgeries.

Love said an increasing focus of the hospital was to “expand capacity” outside of the hospital walls to ease crowding and offer specific care.

The surgeries have raised fears of poaching staff from the public hospital system at a time of widespread nursing and health worker shortages. AOAO had been paying nurses a flat rate of $750 for a 10-hour day. Registered practical nurses were being paid $550 and clerical staff $600. That is about double the rate in the public system, but without benefits.

Health advocates and critics are watching warily for the expansion of independent clinics which will introduce more for-profit players into the already stretched health system.

A recent report from the Kingston Health Coalition found it was costing the health system 56 per cent more to do cataract surgeries in private clinics than at hospitals. The report was based on access to information documents.

Hannah Jensen, a spokesperson for Health Minister Sylvia Jones, said surgical wait times were now returning to pre-pandemic levels in Ontario, with 80 per cent of patients having surgery within recommended times. Still, she said: “Our government knows wait times for surgeries and diagnostic tests have been increasing year after year. We are not okay with the status quo and know more work needs to be done.”

She said the government was excited to see TOH embracing innovation “to provide more publicly-funded procedures, reducing the surgical backlog and reducing wait times so more people can receive the care they need.”

She did not respond to a question about how much the province pays for the weekend surgeries.

Meanwhile, patient Deb Paterson, who had knee replacement surgery at the Riverside last year, said she had an excellent experience.

Five months after being told the wait could be a couple of years, she received a call asking if she wanted to have her surgery through “this new program.” She had surgery about four months later.

After being assured it was covered by OHIP, she said yes.

“You hear about so many things that aren’t going well. This sure went well for me.”

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