Manitoba plans to send as many as 300 spinal-surgery patients to Fargo

Manitoba will send as many as 300 patients awaiting spinal surgery to Fargo, N.D. to get their operations — and may send joint-surgery patients south as well.

The province has reached a deal with Sanford Health, a non-profit health-care system based in the Dakotas, to conduct surgeries on spinal patients who have already waited more than a year, enduring chronic pain and deteriorating mobility in the process.

“We acknowledge the suffering. We acknowledge the waits,” said Dr. Ed Buchel, the provincial surgery lead for Manitoba Shared Health, adding there was no option to send patients elsewhere in Canada because every province is struggling to meet the health-care demands of the Omicron surge.

“We [must] do something about it now and acknowledge that we don’t have a system that is able to handle that. But that doesn’t mean we’re ignoring the fact that we have to build.”

No one with a broken back, an unstable spine or cancer will be sent to Fargo, Buchel said. Sending urgent cases south would be too upsetting to families, he added.

Buchel said Shared Health has identified 150 to 300 spinal surgery patients who are healthy enough to travel to Fargo by car — but whose conditions are too serious to put off further.

“They’re not super-easy cases that we can do as outpatients. They’re not our super-difficult cases or our very acute cases. They’re in the middle and that’s the group that’s waiting the longest,” he said.

“These patients were waiting too long before the pandemic and now this has just extended their wait even further.”

Buchel said the waitlist for spinal surgery — just one component of a provincial backlog of more than 150,000 surgeries and other medical procedures — has continued to grow in recent weeks, thanks to the diversion of hospital staff from operating rooms to COVID-19 care.

Shared Health is still reducing its surgical capacity because of the Omicron surge, he said, even as a provincial task force works on plans to expand it.

The Sanford Medical Centre in Fargo, N.D. is located 360 kilometres south of Winnipeg. (Sanford Health)

Only patients willing and able to travel to the Sanford Health medical centre in Fargo will be selected, Buchel said. Their family members are entitled to the same provincial financial supports they would receive if they travelled for medical procedures within Canada, he said.

The first patients will travel to Fargo next week or the following week, Buchel said. Patients will travel to Fargo for months while Manitoba works on increasing its surgical capacity, he added.

Buchel said he could not estimate how much the surgeries in Fargo will cost the province. Sanford Health charges rates comparable to the cost of the procedures conducted by public health care in Canada, he said.

Three of the doctors who will do the work in Fargo were trained in Canada, including two trained in Winnipeg, he said.

Buchel said the province may also send joint-surgery patients south and will make more announcements about backlog-reduction measures in the coming weeks.

“I don’t want anybody in the population to think that their surgical leadership or the government is throwing up their hands and saying, we can’t deliver care, we have no plan and our plan is we’re going to ship everybody to the United States. That’s not our plan. That is not a sustainable model of care for our province,” he said.

“We need to treat our population in our province by our provincial health care providers. And if we’re not providing enough care, we need to extend that care. But that takes time.”

Doctors Manitoba, which has pushed the province to address its surgery backlog, said it hopes the transfer of patients to the U.S. is a short-term fix.

“Sending patients out of Manitoba for care is not ideal, but we understand the task force has very few local options right now because of the shortage of staff and the current surge in Omicron hospital admissions,” spokesperson Keir Johnson said in a statement.

For a brief period two decades ago, under an NDP government, Manitoba sent radiation-therapy patients to the U.S., he noted.

Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg ICU physican who has been critical of the way the PC government has managed health care, said “it makes total sense” to send long-suffering spine-surgery patients to the United States right now.

“Of course, it’s not ideal, but we’re not in an ideal time. So this is a welcome development and credit where credit is due,” Jacobsohn said.

He nonetheless noted Manitoba would not be in this position had the province not “stripped the system bare” to the point where patients had to wait months and years for spinal surgery.

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