Cancer treatment lagging in Alberta – report

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Alberta is lagging behind most other provinces in providing timely access to cancer radiation treatment, says a new report issued by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a prairie-based think tank.

The organization released its second annual Canada Health Consumer Index in December.

Alberta’s healthcare system ranked fourth overall in the country but rated poorly in providing timely access to cancer radiation therapy. Only 70 per cent of cancer radiation therapies in Alberta are performed within 28 days of the decision to treat, said Ben Eisen, policy analyst with the Frontier Centre.

“It was very clear that cancer radiation waits are significantly longer [in Alberta]than they are in the higher performing provinces,” Eisen said.

In B.C., the highest performing province for cancer radiation treatment, 95 per cent of patients begin their radiation therapy within the 28-day wait-time benchmark, Eisen said.

Treatment within four weeks is an important benchmark that’s set by the Canadian Association of Radiation Oncology, said Angeline Webb, government relations specialist for the Canadian Cancer Society.

Delays really affect the success of the therapy, she said, so 70 per cent is not good enough.

“That means that 30 per cent are not receiving the best practice and that’s alarming to us,” she said.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) expects new cancer treatment facilities scheduled to open in Lethbridge in 2010 and Red Deer in 2012 will help reduce wait times, said spokesman Bruce Conway. However, the issue is complex and there are no quick fixes.

“Certainly wait times are a concern and something that AHS cancer programs is working to address,” he said.

The Frontier Centre study looked at 28 measures in order to rank the provinces on their overall health care performance. The measures are mostly publicly available statistics and are grouped into five categories: patient rights and information, primary care, wait times, outcomes and range of services provided.

Ontario was far in front for the second year. British Columbia and New Brunswick were close together at second and third. Alberta and Nova Scotia were close together at fourth and fifth but still far ahead of the poorest performing provinces. Alberta scored particularly well in health outcomes but was one of the poorest performers for wait times along with Newfoundland, Manitoba and especially Saskatchewan.

“In terms of wait times, even our top performing provinces — Ontario, British Columbia — perform very poorly in comparison to the top performing health care systems in the world, places like the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark,” Eisen said.

The Frontier Centre advocates for patient-based funding rather than the block funding that’s widely used in Canada. The centre would like to see facilities like hospitals based on the number and type of procedures performed. This is an idea that AHS CEO Stephen Duckett has endorsed.

The centre would also like to see portable health care insurance that would enable patients to access health care in neighbouring provinces, Eisen said.

Performance not tied to spending

Another conclusion reached by the report is that health outcomes aren’t directly linked to health spending. While Alberta spends the most per capita on health care ($5,730 in 2008) it ranked fourth in overall health care performance. Ontario is the highest performer while spending $5,229 per capita while Manitoba spent the second highest amount ($5,555) and ranked fourth lowest.

The Alberta government is aware that throwing more money at the health care system isn’t the way to fix it, so is moving towards increased efficiency, said St. Albert MLA Ken Allred.

“We’ve talked about this in general in health care that we’ve got to be more patient focused and outcome focused,” he said.

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