Longer than recommended waits for colonoscopies are a significant problem for B.C. health authorities since the rollout of a province-wide cancer screening program, Health Minister Terry Lake admitted Tuesday.
But Fraser Health officials say colonoscopy waits in this region are largely under control, with 88 per cent of patients getting the procedure within the recommended eight weeks of booking.
Publicly funded stool tests now available under the provincial colon screening program, coupled with public education about the benefits of testing, has fueled a jump in demand for colonoscopies as well as surgery for colorectal cancer.
The program took effect in Fraser a year ago and Lake was under fire from the Opposition in the B.C. Legislature over patient complaints of waits of up to eight months in some other health regions.
“We understand the challenge that has been created by the expansion of the screening program,” Lake responded.
“All health authorities are working hard, under my direction, to ensure that we do reduce those wait times so that all patients that have to be screened and then have a colonoscopy and the surgery are done in a timely manner.”
Fraser Health anticipated 450 people a month would test positive each month using the stool test (called a fecal immunochemical or FIT test) but it’s been contending with twice that number of positive tests triggering colonoscopies or surgery.
“When the program was implemented in November 2013, we experienced an immediate increase of up to 950 positive FIT cases per month, and that number has been sustained,” spokesperson Erin Labbe said.
She said most patients now wait eight weeks after the initial FIT test for a phone assessment, at which point they’re booked for a colonoscopy, which usually happens within eight more weeks.
The median wait time for colorectal surgery last year was three weeks in Fraser Health. Labbe said more recent figures were not available but added urgent cancer surgeries get priority.
In response to rising demand, Fraser has added colonoscopy time at Burnaby, Ridge Meadows, Abbotsford Regional, Royal Columbian, Jim Pattison Outpatient and Langley Memorial hospitals.
“We will continue to add additional colonoscopy time to other hospitals, where we can,” Labbe said.
Early detection and treatment of colon cancer significantly raises survival rates to nearly 90 per cent.
NDP MLA Adrian Dix said private colonoscopy providers have been heavily advertising their services, offering the potential for some patients to jump the queue while the public system struggles to keep pace with demand.
“That shouldn’t happen – $2,000 should not get you months of an advantage in colon cancer care in B.C.”
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in B.C. and the second leading cause of cancer death in men.