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Wait times for joint replacement surgeries surging: surgeons

Health minister admits wait times are too long
The sign at the Whitehorse General Hospital seen on Oct. 18, 2022. Two surgeons have written to their patients about long wait times for joint replacement surgeries. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

The Yukon’s health minister admits people are waiting longer than they should be for joint replacement surgery since two surgeons have written to their patients about growing wait times.

“It is important to us that we are honest with our community about the ongoing challenges we are facing and what this means for you as a patient,” reads the letter to patients from Dr. Scott Westberg and Dr. Adam McIntyre of the Yukon Surgical Clinic.

The letter, dated March 30, was provided to the News by the Yukon Party on April 24. In the letter, wait times for joint replacement surgery have gone up from about a year to between 18 and 24 months.

“We recognize this is long and we are truly sorry. This is not where we want to be and we understand the physical and emotional impact this news may have on you,” the doctors wrote.

The letter cites several factors contributing to longer wait times: more patients requiring surgery, staffing issues causing operating room slowdowns, the need for more surgeon support, a lack of beds and a lack of funding for joint replacement surgery.

“We want to assure you that we are doing our best to address these issues and improve the situation,” reads the letter.

“The people on our waitlist are important to us and we have not forgotten you.”

The Yukon Party raised the letter in question period on April 24.

Following question period, while Health and Social Services Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee did not have the number of people on the waitlist available, she told reporters in the cabinet office that wait times are “creeping up” to up to about one-and-a-half years.

The target wait time is a year or less, she said.

McPhee said the program is currently down a doctor, with only two orthopedic surgeons operating out of the Whitehorse General Hospital at this time.

The Yukon government set up a resident orthopedic surgeon program in the Yukon in 2017. In that first year, 28 knee replacements were done, McPhee said. That was before the program grew to involve hip replacements. Last year, 104 orthopedic surgeries were completed, she said.

McPhee said a joint committee made up of the surgeons, the Yukon Hospital Corporation and the Health and Social Services department regularly reviews surgical service agreements and allocates the number of procedures per discipline based on factors like wait times and urgency.

McPhee said she spoke with one of the signatories to the letter last week to ask them about the issues, which will be referred to the joint committee. She said she met with the Yukon Hospital Corporation’s board chair and chief executive officer on the morning of April 24.

“The question that I had for the doctor was, ‘What do you mean by lack of funding? What do you think that we are not funding that you think that needs to be funded?’” McPhee said.

“We’re acting on this as quickly as possible.”

McPhee said no specific funding requests have been expressed to her. She said she needs more “serious details” regarding the practical problems on the ground and how to fix them.

She said the hospital corporation, the surgeons and the government need to work in tandem on problem solving.

“Yukon government’s responsible for paying fee for service for surgeons, for doctors in this situation. [Yukon] Hospital Corporation has some responsibility for respect to making sure there are nurses available to run operating rooms. And then surgeons have a big role to play in the scheduling,” she said.

“It’s impossible for any one party to resolve it.”

Yukon Party health critic Brad Cathers, who is the MLA for Lake Laberge, told reporters in the foyer of the Yukon legislature that he is not confident the Yukon government is taking steps to fix the delays.

“We have seen no indication from this Liberal government that they treat health care as serious as it should be,” he said.

Cathers suggested a lack of Yukon government funding for the Yukon Hospital Corporation is directly driving wait times up. He has regularly referenced in the Yukon Legislative Assembly what he calls a $14.5-million hole in last fiscal year’s budget and a $10-million gap in the current fiscal year’s budget for the Yukon Hospital Corporation.

“That massive shortage in funding to the hospital is having a direct impact,” he said.

“The hospital can’t do what they need to do without adequate funding from the Yukon government, and when we know that there’s at least a $25-million funding shortfall accounting for this year and the previous fiscal year, clearly that’s going to have an impact. Clearly the surgeons are saying it’s having an impact.”

McPhee has disputed Cathers’ notion of a funding gap. She has argued the Yukon government works with the hospital corporation on funding, noting the territorial government is providing more than $93 million in the 2023-24 budget, plus $12 million for a new mental wellness unit, also known as a secure medical unit or a short-stay psychiatric unit.

Yukon NDP Leader Kate White said she has heard from people who are waiting for joint replacements. She said the delay in the surgeries of up to two years adversely affects those people.

“If, you know, the government made the decision that we were going to do those types of surgeries here to save people from the hardship of having to travel out for them, well, then we need to make sure that we’re doing those surgeries,” she said.

“I think the government has a responsibility and obligation to get them into surgery in a quicker timeframe out of territory. Right? If we’re not able to perform those surgeries here, because we’re short staffed at the hospital, and we don’t have the beds, and we don’t have the nurses, like, to offer that support, then let’s make sure that people aren’t suffering.”

Contact Dana Hatherly at

Dana Hatherly

About the Author: Dana Hatherly

I’m the legislative reporter for the Yukon News.
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