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Wait times for spinal surgeries have more than doubled in Regina, Sask. auditor says

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Wait times for brain and spinal surgeries are up in the province, specifically in Regina, according to Saskatchewan’s auditor who released her second report of 2023 on Wednesday.

According to her report, Tara Clemett, the provincial Auditor of Saskatchewan, says 722 people have been waiting for a neurosurgeon, with about a third of those on a waitlist for more than a year.

Clemett reports that in Regina, wait times for spinal surgeries are double what they were a year ago. Since March 2020, the list of those waiting for spine surgery in Regina has ballooned from 321 to 765, as of April, according to the report.

Meanwhile, wait times in Saskatoon have not changed in the past year, the report shows.

"The ministry has not improved mounting provincial wait lists for neurosurgery services,” Clemett said on Wednesday.

To alleviate wait times, Clemett suggested the province develop and implement a plan that includes changes to the referral process and scheduling of doctors.

Clemett suggested doctors initially refer patients to spine pathway clinics before referring them to surgeons.

According to Clemett, patients who are seen by clinics could have a shorter wait time before seeing a surgeon or having an operation done.

Staff at the clinics do tests to prep patients for surgery or determine if it's needed. If surgery isn't needed, they can provide alternative treatment, such as physiotherapy.

As part of eight recommendations in total, Clemett also suggested the Ministry of Health document criteria for prioritizing surgeries.

“Inconsistent prioritization processes can lead to variation in how different surgeons categorize their patients, resulting in inappropriate surgery delays for certain patients,” she said in the report.

According to the report, neurosurgery physicians in Regina prioritized 83 per cent of spine procedures as emergent or urgent, while the same designations were only given 63 per cent of the time in Saskatoon.

Clemett also said that in Regina, a direct referral system is used for patients and in Saskatoon, a pooled referral system is used. Under the pooled system, patients waited an average of 43.4 days for a consultation. A direct referral system meant waiting an average of 151.7 days, according to the report.

“Under the pooled referral system, patients have the option of seeing the first available neurosurgeon in the pool,” Clemett said.

Waiting longer means patients could face increased pain and mental anguish along with progressively worsening health conditions, Clemett said in the report.

Saskatchewan’s Health Minister Everett Hindley says he has had conversations with the province’s head of surgery Dr. Michael Kelly specifically about neurosurgeries.

“To my understanding, the last conversation that I had with Dr. Kelly was about how there is already work underway to address a number of the issues that have actually been identified in the auditor’s report today,” Hindley said following question period at the legislature on Wednesday.

Hindley said both the Ministry of Health and Saskatchewan Health Authority accept the recommendations made.

When asked, Hindley said he did not currently have specifics as to what steps were being taken.

“Again I just wanted to ensure that whatever is done is addressing the concerns that have been raised.”

-- With files from The Canadian Press.

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