The Ottawa Hospital says it has boosted capacity to shorten breast cancer surgery wait times:
Posted: May 5, 2023
(May 4, 2023)
By: Elizabeth Payne, The Ottawa Citizen
The focus on cancer surgery comes after this newspaper reported that some women are waiting up to six months for breast cancer surgery at the hospital’s General campus.
The Ottawa Hospital says it is dramatically reducing long wait times for breast cancer surgery by increasing surgical capacity at all of its campuses, among other things.
The hospital’s General campus has had some of the longest waits for breast cancer surgery in the province, causing some patients to seek private surgery at a clinic in Montreal. The hospital said Thursday that it has improved wait times significantly, so that about 60 per cent of patients are now getting into surgery within target times set by the province. In recent months just 13 per cent of priority three breast cancer patients at the hospital’s General campus underwent surgery within the target timeline, compared to a provincial average of 83 per cent. The wait at other campuses was not as long. Other hospitals in Ottawa have significantly shorter wait times for breast cancer surgery.
Hospital spokesperson Rebecca Abelson said most breast cancer surgeries have historically been done at the hospital’s General campus, where the cancer centre is located and which is equipped to handle the most complex cases. The hospital said breast cancer surgeries are now being performed at all three of its campuses, “given current delays in access.” It has also increased surgical capacity. “We continue to work with our partners in the regional program to further expand care and ensure that the wait time challenges for breast cancer patients are being addressed while maintaining timely access to all cancer surgeries.”
The hospital said it will be adding further capacity in the coming months “to be back to our pre-pandemic wait time targets or better.”
Officials with Ontario’s ministry of health confirmed they have received assurances from the hospital that it is working to improve access to cancer surgery, according to a spokesperson. “We have been in contact with The Ottawa Hospital (which) has reassured us that they will continue to provide additional days for oncology surgery to ensure they can increase access to oncology surgery and reduce wait times for all priority patients,” said Hannah Jensen, who is a spokesperson for the province’s Minister of Health Sylvia Jones.
The focus on cancer surgery comes after this newspaper reported that some women are waiting up to six months for breast cancer surgery at the hospital’s General campus. Growing numbers of breast cancer patients at the hospital are opting to pay for private surgery at a clinic in Montreal because they fear their cancer will spread before they have surgery, given the long waits.
One patient, Julie Fine, said she recently spoke with a surgeon about possible breast reconstruction and was told the surgeon was only getting two hours of operating room time a month. Fine said she was shocked. “How can (the surgeon) even have patients? How can she even be a surgeon? What is broken in the system that this highly trained surgeon … does not have hundreds of hours per month of OR time?”
Fine paid for private breast cancer surgery in Montreal during the first year of the pandemic after hospitals were forced to pause less urgent surgeries. She said she didn’t feel she had a choice and doesn’t regret her decision, but she said she is shocked by how tough it continues to be to get access to surgery at the hospital.
Julie Coulson Fine, 50, had two lumpectomies and a full mastectomy in 2020 in Montreal after she was given an indefinite wait time in Ottawa for surgery following her breast cancer diagnosis.Today she has a clean bill of health and thinks seeking out her own care at a private health clinic possibly saved her life.
Fine said she has opted not to undergo breast reconstruction surgery. She recently wrote a letter to Health Minister Jones calling for action on long waits for breast cancer surgery and questioning why it is not being made a priority. “I am writing to you from Ottawa, where we have an urgent situation for women with a breast cancer diagnosis who are facing unacceptably long wait times for treatment.” Fine wrote that the minister is responsible to secure urgent funding so that there are more hours of operating room time available for breast cancer surgeons at The Ottawa Hospital. “As I’m sure you’re aware, delaying treatment creates worse outcomes and death. Please intervene immediately.” She also noted, as other patients have, that Ontario has a successful screening program aimed at catching breast cancer early, but hospitals are unable to follow up in a timely way.
“What is the point of detecting cancers if there’s ineffective ability by the Ontario health system to give life-saving breast cancer surgeries in an appropriate time frame?” Jones has previously said that the Progressive Conservative government has invested $800 million in a surgical recovery strategy to reduce wait times since the pandemic began. It remains open to hospitals. It also passed new legislation aimed at moving cataract and orthopaedic surgeries to stand-alone clinics, including those privately owned, to reduce long wait times.
Earlier this year, a private group called AOAO began renting operating room space at the hospital’s Riverside campus on Saturdays to catch up on backlogged hip and knee surgeries. The initiative has been called innovative by Jones, but others have expressed concerns that it will poach nurses from the already short-staffed hospital.