VICTORIA -- The British Columbia government says it will take up to two years and $250 million annually to work through a backlog of 30,000 surgeries that were cancelled over just over two months of the novel coronavirus pandemic, if all goes according to plan.

The plan, revealed Thursday, will require extending operating room hours to weekends, contracting more private surgery clinics and offering permanent jobs to every student nurse graduating in the province this year.

Health officials say they had been making gains on cutting wait times in the province over the past three years, adding approximately 18,230 surgeries annually and increasing surgery hours by about 5.5 per cent.

The past eight weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic have wiped out those gains.

There are now about 93,000 people on the wait list for surgeries in B.C., many of them for significant procedures related to cancer, cardiac and neurological disorders.

The province estimates 30,000 surgeries were lost between March 16 and May 18, with 14,000 procedures postponed and another 16,000 not scheduled at all.

Another 24,000 patients who would have been added to wait lists for surgeries were not and the province now says it's too early to say when those referrals will happen.

Tackling the backlog

The province says elective surgeries will begin again on May 15, with screening for these procedures beginning today, May 7.

Operating rooms across the province will see their operating hours increased daily, and procedures will now happen on Saturdays and Sundays.

The province will also ramp up surgeries over the summer, when operating room activity typically slows down due to staff and patient holidays.

To fight the backlog, the province will open new operating rooms and reopen unused operating rooms, and contract with more private clinics if they agree to follow the Canada Health Act and not charge patients extra.

The province will also hire more health-care and support staff across the board, including cleaning staff, bookkeepers and food services workers.

An estimated 1,550 nursing students who are graduating in B.C. this year will all be offered permanent employment, and the province says it will work to recruit more health-care workers from other jurisdictions.

The province says that if all its strategies to fight the surgery backlog go according to plan, it will take between 17 and 24 months before the 30,000-patient backlog is cleared. The progress of the plan will be assessed monthly.

The B.C. Nurses' Union said Thursday the announcement is good news for recent graduates entering the workforce, but cautioned that nurses in the province will need better access to personal protective equipment if they are going to ramp up surgeries.

"We still are concerned about access to personal protective equipment and making sure that we can deliver the quality services that patients expect, particularly the ones who have been waiting this long for their surgery,” BCNU president Christine Sorensen told CTV News.

“We need to make sure the patients are safe and that nurses are safe as we move into this next phase of reopening the province.”

Cost and timeline

Health Minister Adrian Dix estimates the plan to tackle the backlog in surgeries will cost approximately $250 million in its first year.

The province hopes to have all its contracted facilities working at maximum available capacity by May 31, and all existing provincial operating rooms at full capacity by June 15. 

  • May 7 to 15 – patient outreach, pre-operative screening, implementation planning
  • May 18 – surgical services begin, increasing capacity over four weeks to near-normal pre-COVID levels
  • May 31 – all private contracted facilities working at maximum available capacity
  • June – begin recruitment and training of new staff
  • June 15 – all existing operating rooms running at full available capacity
  • June 15 to October 15 – incrementally bringing on additional capacity by extending daily hours of operation, adding Saturdays and Sundays to the schedule, and opening new operating rooms where available
  • July – Ministry of Health first monthly progress report on surgery renewal
  • July to August – optimize capacity over the summer period.