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London hospital officials: Cancer surgery wait times cut dramatically

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London Health Sciences Centre has, during the past year, reduced cancer surgery wait times for non-emergency patients by 50 per cent, its oncology head says.

As of March, through a “dedicated team effort,” 90 per cent of oncology patients at the Verspeeten Family Cancer Centre at LHSC’s Victoria Hospital were receiving surgery within the targeted wait time according to the urgency of their diagnosis, the regional hospital group said Wednesday in a statement.

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“I think patients will probably be excited to hear about these changes, particularly anyone who’s a cancer patient, or a patient who’s a family member with cancer,” said Michael Ott, LHSC’s department head of oncology. “I think by shortening these times, we’re making their anxiety around their treatment pathway less.”

Depending on the diagnosis, patients are categorized as Priority 4 through Priority 1, with the former not presenting symptoms and the latter being advanced enough to require immediate emergency surgery, according to the province.

The province sets targets for patients – triaged from Priority 4 through 1 – to meet with a surgeon after a referral, and between a surgery consultation and the procedure itself.

Both target times are set with the goal of having nine of 10 patients seen within the target. Ott said for the wait between the surgery consultation and the actual procedure, 97 per cent of Priority 4 patients are being seen on time, as are 81 per cent of Priority 3.

“We’re pretty close to meeting the provincial target at this point, which is set at 90 per cent, and we’re, for the first time in a long time, outperforming some of our provincial partners in the region,” he said.

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Measures to speed up surgery wait times included improving referral systems, reviewing and optimizing patient data, and dedicating more operating room time to cancer surgeries, Ott said.

LHSC worked with in-patient surgery and post-anesthetic care units to open up incremental time in their schedules to fit in more oncology patients, which the regional hospital group prioritized, he said.

“It’s really just about tracking the individuals and adding the time to the grid,” Ott said. “But that simplifies a massive project with a lot of people involved to ensure there’s capacity throughout the whole system in order to manage the surgical care.”

While London’s cancer surgery wait times lagged before the pandemic, particularly for thyroid and endocrine cancer, the backlog of surgeries brought on by COVID-19 exacerbated the issue. Some patients waited several months between referrals, surgery consultations, surgeries and treatment.

LHSC officials said while high priority patients “largely” have been seen within the recommended surgical wait time (28 days for Priority 3, 14 days for Priority 2), the reduction in wait times means better outcomes overall for early-stage cancer patients who may have faced barriers.

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“These improvements reflect our commitment to providing timely and efficient care to a growing number of patients across Southwestern Ontario,” Kevin Chan, LHSC’s corporate medical executive, said in a statement.

Ott said there are still several measures and programs LHSC can consider to further improve wait times, between tweaking central referral processes, and having nurse navigators for diagnostics.

Peter Bergmanis, co-chair of the London chapter of the Ontario Health Coalition, said the news is proof that, given the chance, the public health care system can make positive changes and improve patient outcomes,

He pointed to the recent $20 million donation to LHSC’s cancer centre as a likely influence, but said most of the changes made were done by re-evaluating the hospital’s existing resources.

“This is in a time when the government has imposed austerity on all the hospitals, and there’s London Health Sciences Centre with an over $40-million deficit, and yet it was able to find a way to improve processes to get those cancer waiting lists down,” he said.

“It’s a feather in their cap for a change. It’s nice to see. I compliment them for doing it.”

jmoulton@postmedia.com

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