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If our public health-care system is so enviable, as its supporters claim, why do so many Canadians seek treatment abroad every year?

In 2016, an estimated 63,459 Canadians received non-emergency medical treatment outside Canada. The estimate is based on data gathered through the Fraser Institute’s Waiting Your Turn survey of physicians, and from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which tracks the numbers of procedures performed in Canada.

Among provinces, British Columbia had the highest proportion (2.4 per cent) of patients who sought treatment abroad last year. In Ontario, an estimated 26,513 patients left the country for treatment, the largest number of patients for a single province.

Nationwide, among all specialties, otolaryngologists (who generally treat diseases and disorders of the ear, nose and throat) reported the highest proportion of patients (2.1 per cent) travelling abroad for treatment, followed closely by neurosurgeons (1.9 per cent).

Why are so many Canadians travelling abroad and paying extra to access health care?

There are several potential reasons. Some Canadians may seek treatment elsewhere due to a lack of available resources or because some procedures are simply not provided at home. Others may want to access more advanced health-care technologies in state-of-the-art medical facilities.

And crucially, many Canadians likely seek to avoid Canada’s long wait times – a defining characteristic of our health-care system – and potential consequences such as a worsening of their condition, disability or even death.

More timely treatment means a quicker return to normal life.

In addition to being detrimental to our health, long wait times also affect our productivity and ability to earn income. In 2016, patients in Canada could expect to wait 10.6 weeks for medically-necessary treatment after seeing a specialist – almost four weeks longer than what physicians consider clinically reasonable.

The Fraser Institute estimates that these long waits for surgery and medical treatment cost Canadians more than $1.7 billion annually – or $1,759 per patient – in lost wages and time. This represents the average cost of time lost during the work week in Canada for the estimated 973,505 patients waiting for treatments across 12 medical specialties. When calculations include the value of time outside the traditional work week – evenings and weekends – the estimated cost of waiting jumps from $1.7 billion to $5.2 billion, or from $1,759 per patient to about $5,360 per patient.

If Canada’s long wait times aren’t addressed, patients will continue to pay a price in lost wages, reduced quality of life and, in some cases, poorer medical outcomes.

So we shouldn’t be surprised if more patients decide to leave Canada due to a lack of available resources or appropriate procedures, or because they desire to return more quickly to their normal lives.

But we should be deeply concerned. And we should seriously consider loosening the public monopoly’s grip on the funding and provision of medically-required care that fails so many Canadians and may push them to leave Canada for timely access to the care they need.

Yanick Labrie is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute and co-author of the study Leaving Canada for Medical Care, 2017.

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