Anita Levin's first child, Molly, was born with a ventricular septal defect – a heart condition that requires surgery. Molly was put on a long waiting list at Toronto's SickKids hospital, but when her turn arrived, she was ill
and doctors couldn't operate. "We had to go back on the waiting list for another six months," says Anita.
Anita and her husband were so concerned that they called the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, to see if they could get the surgery done privately. The price tag: $120,000. "We didn't even have that much equity in our house," Anita recalls. In the end, she lobbied for her daughter the only way she could. "We live downtown," she told the nurse. "If there's a cancellation, I can be there in half an hour."
About three months later, she got a call at 4 p.m. "We were in hospital by 5 p.m. and Molly had her surgery the next day," she says. It was definitely a learning experience for Anita and her family.
Waiting for procedures is a fact of life – in 2012, 870,462 Canadians dealt with wait times, and it took an average of 17.7 weeks to go from the referral stage to treatment.
If you live in a sparsely populated area of the country, the situation is even worse. New Brunswickers, for example, waited an average of 35.1 weeks for treatment. When you're dealing with a serious health condition, such long wait times can be life threatening.
The good news? There are ways the average Canadian can jump the health-care queue. Before you get all huffy, let's be clear: We're not talking about doing anything illegal or immoral. If you follow a few simple rules, you may be able to bump yourself up the line without even a twinge of guilt.
1. Get help from your employer
Check with your human resources department to see what assistance is on offer. Recipients of provincial and territorial workers' compensation may have access to expedited health care. In addition, almost one in three Canadians have free access to a medical specialist service called Best Doctors
through employee benefits programs. When people are faced with a health condition, explains Robin Cooper, vice-president of strategic relations for Best Doctors Canada, "we pull up a list of two or three specialists they can see, depending on where they live. And we'll give them an idea of what the wait times are like for each." An add-on service called Find a Best Doctor offers expert opinions to confirm or reject a diagnosis or suggest alternative treatments. Other employee-assistance programs may offer similar services. 2. Network
"Use your contacts," advises Heather Chapman, whose website (thepatientfactor.com
) focuses on patient advocacy and private health-care alternatives. Ask friends and family whether they know anyone with pull in the medical field. And we're not just talking doctors or nurses
: Sometimes a receptionist may be able to squeeze you in. Feel guilty? "Ask yourself whether people who have their name on a wing of a hospital get pushed ahead of you in the queue," says Chapman. 3. Be a (friendly) pest
When Michael Decter, coauthor of Navigating Canada's Health Care
(Penguin Canada, 2008), injured his shoulder skiing last winter, he didn't hear back about his X-ray
for three days. His assumption: "It can't be fractured, or they would have called me." But it turned out that the receptionist had been dialling an old phone number. Decter advises calling the doctor's office yourself to check on test results and to get updates on cancellations and appointments with specialists or surgeons. 4. Look further afield
When his friend was told she would have to wait two weeks for an ultrasound
to find out if she had colon cancer, Decter (who had accompanied her to her appointment) asked the doctor: "If you needed to get this done in a half-hour, where would you go?" They were directed to a nearby clinic that could do the test immediately.
No luck with the doctor? Chapman suggests calling around or checking the Internet for specialists or diagnostic clinics. "Doctors are busy," she says. "If you can do your own legwork and say, ‘Look, I found this place, and they can do the test tomorrow,' more often than not doctors will give the referral," she says.
5. Make sure your referral doesn't go missing
A lost referral can halt diagnosis and treatment in their tracks. "You always have the right to pick up the phone and say, ‘Did you receive my referral? Do you have any idea when I'm going to be seen?'" advises Kristina MacKenzie, a registered nurse and patient advocate from the town of Bridgewater, N.S. 6. Get a guide
The role of patient navigator is new to Canada. But cancer patients are increasingly beginning to have access to these professionals, who are RNs with training in oncology who can connect cancer patients with doctors, therapies and other resources.
In Nova Scotia, each regional health authority has a navigator for cancer patients. In Saskatchewan, no such position exists, but the Canadian Cancer Society
has a director of support services who helps patients navigate the system and sometimes advocates for them. Your best bet: Call your provincial Cancer Care office or ask at the hospital about whether or not a patient navigator will be available. 7. Ask about rapid-access clinics
When the B.C. government introduced a pilot rapid-access breast clinic in 2009, it cut the average breast cancer diagnosis time in half, because all diagnostic tests
are done under the same roof. Small wonder that rapid-access clinics have been popping up across the country, for conditions including prostate cancer and skin cancer. Ask your doctor whether such a facility exists in your area. 8. Pay out of pocket
Seven years ago, Chapman went into the hospital to have a baby and came out needing reconstructive surgery. She was in debilitating pain, but the specialist advised her to wait six months to see if things got better.
When her condition continued to deteriorate, Chapman sought medical attention in another country. Chapman paid $3,500 (not including flights) for a consultation and tests at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, MD. After getting a diagnosis, she went back to Canada and got the surgery she desperately needed.
If you can afford it, says Chapman, paying for tests privately allows you to skip a step. And you don't necessarily have to go out of the country. Access to private health care varies from province to province. New Brunswick and Newfoundland have few or no private clinics and, in Ontario, private health-care providers offer only tests and procedures
that aren't considered medically necessary. British Columbia and Alberta each have 60 or more clinics, some of them performing multiple types of surgery. And Quebec, the private-health-care capital of Canada, has more than 300 providers. For information on options, check out findprivateclinics.ca
. 9. Research all nearby hospitals
You may find that one has significantly shorter wait times. Just do an Internet search with the name of your province followed by "hospital wait times." A quick glance at Ontario's site, for example, found a wait time of 55 days for bladder surgery at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, compared to 265 days for the same procedure at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
When you do finally see a doctor, here are the important questions to ask
. Plus, how to make your hospital stay, relatively stress-free