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An Ontario doctor is sounding off about the three years one of his patients has to wait to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

A year after requesting a consult with an ENT for a patient with hearing loss and tinnitus, or ear ringing, Dr. Mike Hart received a written note from another doctor informing him his patient would likely have to wait over three years to see him.

“Due to an overwhelming number of referrals, the current wait time for non-urgent referral is 36+ months,” the note read. 

“There are a lot of people out there who have had something similar happen,” Hart, a London, Ont. physician, told True North in an interview. “Maybe it hasn’t been three years like with that particular patient,  But they may have had a situation where they had to wait six months, 12 months, one month, two months.”

He said wait times in Canada have gradually worsened over the last ten years of his practice, driving people to seek medical treatment abroad.

“Even my own fiancée had to seek medical care elsewhere, and she had surgery in Greece because the wait times in Canada were too inappropriate,” Hart said.

Mackenzie Moir, a senior policy analyst and health expert at the Fraser Institute, told True North that wait times have increased significantly since at least the 1990s.

“It’s not necessarily a year-over-year increase, but we’ve seen an overall trend,” Moir said.

He said the average wait time to see a specialist in Canada was 27.7 weeks, according to the latest polling Fraser Institute released in 2023. In 1993, the national estimate was 9.3 weeks.

According to Moir, Canada spent the most on healthcare as a percentage of its GDP out of 30 other universal healthcare countries. Yet it has 2.8 physicians per thousand population, ranking it the 28th worst in all of those countries.

Moir was careful to point out that throwing money at the problem won’t solve it. He said Canadian provinces should adopt a similar approach to Saskatchewan’s “very successful experiment,” which involved expanding and contracting private clinics to deliver publicly funded healthcare.

“They were able to reduce their wait time significantly in that period, taking them from the longest wait times outside of Atlantic Canada in 2010 to one of the shortest by 2014,” Moir said.

Hart said that despite Ontario having more doctors than ever, the province is still experiencing shortage issues, and for him, there are several contributing factors to the longer wait times.

“We just don’t have enough specialists, ER doctors, or family doctors. The situation is getting worse,” he said. “It’s not just a doctor shortage. We also have an aging population and a growing population.”

Hart said language barriers between doctors and many newcomers to Canada who do not speak English as a first language can limit the number of patients a doctor can see.

“Of course, (everyone) deserves care, but when two people are speaking different languages, it is going to complicate things and make things difficult,” he said. 

Hart said many doctors leave their roles due to poor working conditions and general burnout.

“Certainly, COVID has exacerbated all of the situations and all wait times that are going on right now. I think family doctors and emergency room doctors especially, feel like they’re grossly underpaid,” he said.

During the pandemic, many Canadian healthcare professionals were penalized for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, further decreasing the number of doctors as well.

Hart also said that some of the onus lies on Canadians to keep themselves healthy and alleviate the “bottled-up” healthcare system.

“(Many) patients are not taking care of themselves very well, and people are getting sicker and sicker,” he said, pointing to a growing number of people with obesity and diabetes as an example.

“I think that we need to place a little more emphasis on preventative care,” he said. “The healthcare system may only be here for you when you’re really sick or may not be here for you when you’re starting to feel sick. It seems like it’s being reduced to mostly emergency services.”