How Long is Too Long? Canadian Healthcare Wait Times

By: Benefits by Design | Tuesday July 7, 2020

Updated : Monday December 14, 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic, provincial health ministers prioritized hospital space for coronavirus patients and canceled thousands of elective surgeries. These cancellations will result in an increase to already lengthy wait times for Canadians looking to see specialists.   

It is easy to think of Canada’s healthcare system as a single organism. Still, the truth is that Canada’s healthcare system is broken up into pieces — one health plan per province and territory. 

With no federal healthcare system in place (that’s what national pharmacare might provide), Canadians in each province or territory have varying health plans, coverages, and access to practitioners. This means that wait times associated with getting certain tests, referrals to specialists, or even surgery, vary widely by province.

Waiting for Treatment in Canada can be Harmful

Waiting for treatment in Canada, depending on the circumstances, can have serious consequences. These consequences may include poorer medical outcomes, increased or prolonged pain, and negative impacts on mental health. In dire circumstances, prolonged waits can even transform potentially curable illnesses and injuries into irreversible chronic conditions or permanent disabilities. 

For example, consider someone waiting for surgery to help alleviate major pain and discomfort and the added stress that could bring.

Or worse still, a potentially curable disease or illness that, due to waiting too long, spreads and becomes chronic or untreatable.

In addition, consider the financial impacts on Canadians unable to work while they wait for treatment. Employers should also consider the impact on benefits plans as they take Long Term Disability (LTD) Insurance leave.

Healthcare Wait Times During and After COVID-19

The global COVID-19 pandemic has affected many things, but healthcare, understandably, has been one of the most impacted.

Thousands of elective surgeries were postponed and as a result, wait times in Canada over the next few years are likely to increase even further as hospitals and doctors deal with their backlogs.

Some hospitals are already making special preparations to resume elective surgeries after COVID-19, but the question isn’t whether or not COVID-19 will affect healthcare wait times — it’s how much.

So How Long is Too Long? An Infographic

Every year, the Fraser Institute looks at the average wait time for Canadians to see a specialist. Based on their research and findings, we created the infographic below to bring health care wait times to the forefront of Canadians’ minds.

The Infographic itself is based on the Fraser Institute’s 2019 Report Waiting Your Turn: Wait Times for Health Care in Canada.

Wait times for health care in Canada

Infographic: Wait Times for Health Care in Canada

Data is derived from Waiting Your Turn: Wait Times for Health Care in Canada 2019 Report from the Fraser Institute

Median Wait Times by Province in 2019

Weeks waited from a General Practitioner referral to treatment:

British Columbia — 24 weeks

Alberta — 28 weeks

Saskatchewan — 26 weeks

Manitoba — 32.4 weeks

Ontario — 16 weeks

Quebec — 16.3 weeks

Newfoundland and Labrador — 23.4 weeks

New Brunswick — 39.7 weeks

Prince Edward Island — 49.3 weeks

Nova Scotia — 33.3 weeks


Cardiology — Study and treatment of disorders of the heart and blood vessels.

General Surgery — Surgical care for alimentary tract, abdomen, breast, skin, and soft tissue, and the endocrine system.

Otorhinolaryngology — Medical and surgical specialty that focuses on head and neck diseases and disorders.

Ophthalmology — Study and treatment of disorder of the eye.

Orthopaedic Surgery — Treatment of disorders of the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles.

Urology — Treatment of the male and female urinary tract (including kidneys).

Median Wait Times by Specialty in 2019

Weeks waited from General Practitioner referral to treatment:

Orthopaedic Surgery — 39.1 weeks

Ophthalmology — 28.4 weeks

Otorhinolaryngology — 25.3 weeks

Urology — 15.1 weeks

General Surgery — 14.9 weeks

Cardiology — 11.2 weeks

Diagnostic Tests

In Alberta, you’ll be waiting 7 weeks to receive a CT-Scan compared to Saskatchewan where you’ll only be waiting 2.5 weeks.

Need an MRI? In Prince Edward Island, you could be waiting for over 4 months (18 weeks).