After Months of Pain, These Patients Paid Thousands of Dollars for Surgery Outside British Columbia


For months, Peter Joy spent part of the day soaking his aching foot in a bucket of ice water to help ease the searing pain.

He couldn’t work. He couldn’t walk. He couldn’t even swim – one of his favorite types of exercise – because of the excruciating pain in the big toe of his left foot.

“Even the resistance of kicking water would increase toe pain,” he said. “My life has been taken from me.”

Joy was put on a referral list in November to see the first available surgeon, then told in February he would have to wait up to 18 months for surgery in British Columbia to treat osteoarthritis at the base of the toe.

“It crushed me,” said Joy, a Surrey pain psychologist.

Not wanting to wait more than a year, Joy opted to pay nearly US$12,000 for surgery in Seattle, Washington in April of this year.

Until he had his surgery, Joy was one of thousands of British Columbians waiting for elective surgery. Currently, just over 88,300 patients are on BC’s surgical waiting lists. Some of the longest waits are for orthopedic surgeries, the kind Joy has been waiting for.

The daily pain too much to bear

The expectations are partly due to the pandemic, which has put elective surgeries like orthopedic surgery on hold.

Orthopedic surgeons told CBC News that the pandemic and natural disasters, namely floods and wildfires in British Columbia, have also exacerbated staffing shortages. Doctors also say there are not enough beds.

The province says it is aware of the long waits and is trying to address the problem by opening new operating rooms and hiring more staff, including surgeons, nurses and anesthesiologists.

But the changes didn’t come soon enough for Joy, who said the daily pain was too much to bear.

“I was getting really depressed,” said Joy, who has practiced psychology for more than 30 years.

Joy said he contacted a private clinic in Vancouver but was told he was not eligible for private orthopedic surgery in the province.

Peter Joy decided to have the surgery in Seattle, Washington after learning he would have to wait up to 18 months for his procedure in British Columbia. (Baneet Braich/CBC)

He considered paying for surgery in another province, but decided that traveling to Seattle for the consultation, surgery and follow-ups would be more convenient than the options in Calgary or Toronto, which did not respond quickly to his requests.

Total costs to Seattle, including travel and accommodations, were comparable to out-of-province Canadian options, he said.

Dr. Sarah Jurek, an orthopedic surgeon in Seattle, says she’s seen an uptick in Canadian clients during the pandemic.

“I’ve never had a Canadian patient before and I’ve had three [in the past eight months],” she says.

Long wait times were cited by at least one of his Canadian patients as the main reason he traveled to the United States for surgery.

Find relief abroad

Other British Columbians have flown around the world to ease their pain.

Lauren Swans, a recreation therapist in Vancouver, was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease last year.

She said she experienced severe nerve pain in her lower back, pelvis and legs which presented as burning or tingling sensations.

“I was in excruciating pain all day.”

After months of painfully waiting, Vancouver-based Lauren Swans says she has decided to have the surgery in France. (Lauren Swan)

In March 2021, she was put on a surgery waiting list and was later told the earliest she could get the elective surgery was June 2022. But even that was unlikely, he said. she stated.

“My mental health was so affected that my family and friends weren’t sure if I was waiting for surgery, if I would still be here,” she said.

After months of waiting, she decided to travel to France for surgery in February, paying $30,000 including travel and accommodation.

“Our medical system has not been able to support me,” she said.

A calculated risk

Patients may consider leaving Canada for surgery because they feel access is faster or quality is better elsewhere, says Jason Sutherland, director of the Center for Health Services and Policy Research at the University. ‘University of British Columbia.

But Sutherland warns that adverse outcomes, such as postoperative infections, can lead to increased costs for those having surgery outside of Canada.

“If you are not treated … if you are discharged from a foreign hospital you can get very sick from it,” he said.

While surgeries abroad may seem quicker to access, unfavorable outcomes can still endanger health and drive up costs, says UBC professor Jason Sutherland. (Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock)

He adds that having surgery abroad can also mean having to wait a long time for rehabilitation when they return to British Columbia.

Still, patients choosing to leave the country for surgery reflect “a broken system,” said Dr. Cassandra Lane Dielwart, president-elect of the British Columbia Orthopedic Association.

Dr Dielwart described a “surgical crisis” in British Columbia, noting that patients are losing their jobs, becoming addicted to narcotics and becoming depressed while waiting for surgery.

Joy and Swan say their experiences abroad reflect the frustration felt by thousands of people who wait in pain for surgery in BC’s public health system.

“Part of me is really mad at how our healthcare system is failing so many people who are suffering,” Joy said.