A new report by the Fraser Institute criticizes long waits for surgery in B.C. and accuses the province of routinely underestimating the wait times it publishes on its website.
B.C. patients wait an average of five months for medically necessary elective surgery, according to the annual report by the think tank.
It shows the average patient waits 9.5 weeks once referred by a GP until they see a specialist and then another 11.6 weeks from the specialist appointment to surgery.
The wait to see the specialist was unchanged in 2014 from 2013, but the wait from specialist to surgery increased slightly from 10.4 weeks a year ago, according to the report.
And the overall wait of 21.1 weeks has more than doubled since 1993.
The study examined a wide range of procedures and averaged the wait times.
Orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery and plastic surgery had the longest wait times nationally, while medical or radiation oncology had average waits of four weeks or less because cancer patients get high priority.
Fraser Institute economist and report lead author Bacchus Barua said the wait times for treatment are "unacceptably high" despite high levels of health care spending.
The findings also show B.C. patients are now waiting longer than they did two years ago for various diagnostic procedures.
MRI waits have risen most dramatically, from 12 weeks in 2012 to 20 weeks this year – the longest in Canada – while CT scan and ultrasound waits both rose from four to five weeks over the same period.
B.C.'s health ministry publishes estimated wait times on its website, but the report argues those numbers are "inaccurate."
It says the 11.1-week wait time claimed by the ministry for orthopedic surgery as of this spring is mathematically impossible given the number of patients waiting in B.C. then and how fast surgeries were being done, suggesting the real wait would be 16 to 24 weeks longer.
"Specialty by specialty, month in and month out, the median wait figures reported by the ministry remain consistently, and surprisingly, lower than expected given the number of patients waiting and the number of procedures can can reasonably be expected to be performed per week."
The disparity between the government's wait times and Fraser Health's estimates is in part because the province only counts the wait for surgery as beginning when the hospital receives the operating room booking.
The Fraser Institute says that method understates the actual wait because some hospitals only take bookings a few months ahead – wiping longer waits off the official statistics – and excludes any delay between the decision to treat a patient and the formal booking.
Health ministry spokesperson Kristy Anderson said the Fraser Institute survey is based on personal opinion rather than hard clinical data because it relies on surveys of doctors.
"We do recognize the challenge," she said. "Despite increasing the number of surgeries and diagnostic exams, B.C. is facing unprecedented demand for health care services – putting pressure on our wait lists."
B.C.'s total surgical wait is above the national average of 18.2 weeks, according to the study.
Patients wait as little as 14 weeks in Saskatchewan and Ontario, but more than 30 weeks in the Maritime provinces.
Barua said potential models for wait time reform include other countries with universal health care systems such as Switzerland, the Netherlands and Austrlalia that also offer a parallel private system catering to those who can pay extra.
"Simply putting someone on a list is not the same as providing necessary medical care in a timely manner."