Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Waiting Game

Wall Street Journal
August 29, 2006

Last week Ottawa-based Decima Research released results of a poll designed to answer the ultimate question in Canada: "How many wait too long for health care?" The firm says its survey of 3,070 Canadians "reveals that more than one in three Canadian households has tried and failed to get timely access to at least one health service within the last three months."

Nearly half (46%) of those waiting to see a specialist said they experienced an "unreasonable" wait time, as did 30% of those waiting to confirm a diagnosis. Of those who sought emergency hospital treatment, 44% said their wait was too long. According to Decima CEO Bruce Anderson, "In the case of some services, the number of people satisfied with the speed of service is virtually equaled by the number of people who are dissatisfied."

The Vancouver-based Fraser Institute's "Waiting Your Turn" annual report has documented Canada's waiting-time crisis in health care for 15 years. In 2005 it found "total waiting time between referral from a general practitioner and treatment, averaged across all 12 specialties and 10 provinces, was 17.7 weeks."

At issue here is whether it is better to ration a scarce good using prices, as a free-market system would do, or using time, as is inevitably the case with nationally financed systems. As Mr. Anderson put it, "These results confirm that millions of Canadian households, in the last three months alone, experienced the anxiety of waiting what they felt was too long a period of time for a health service."

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