Waiting for treatment has become a defining characteristic of Canadian health care. In order to document
the lengthy queues for visits to specialists and for diagnostic and surgical procedures in the country, the
Fraser Institute has—for over two decades—surveyed specialist physicians across 12 specialties and 10
provinces. This edition of Waiting Your Turn indicates that, overall, waiting times for medically necessary
treatment have increased since last year. Specialist physicians surveyed report a median waiting time of
21.2 weeks between referral from a general practitioner and receipt of treatment—longer than the wait of
20.0 weeks reported in 2016. This year’s wait time—the longest ever recorded in this survey’s history—is
128% longer than in 1993, when it was just 9.3 weeks.
When there is a scarcity of a good or service two things happen. You either increase the price or increase the time it takes to get that good or service.
Uber is a good example that almost everyone understands now. They call it “surge pricing”. What this does is ensures they can provide a ride for anyone that wants it during times of high demand. Let’s say a ride that is priced at $20.00 under normal circumstances suddenly increases because some event just ended and there are thousands of people wanting an Uber. The price will continue to rise while demand increases.
But what happens on the supply side? People who drive for Uber but are not actively driving for the company see that the prices are going up because so many people are requesting rides. So they enter the supply chain to make some extra cash. As more drivers enter the supply chain the price of that ride starts to fall until the price eventually goes back to normal while the high demand for rides subsides. This process ensures that people who want a ride and are willing to pay for it get one.
What would happen if the government stepped in to put in price controls on Uber like they do with regular cabs? You would have to wait longer and longer because the price would be out of balance with the demand. That’s why before Uber existed people found it difficult to find a cab during times of high demand.
Back to the Canadian healthcare system. Because they are under a single payer system and individuals don’t have to pay for service themselves the costs of healthcare services are tightly controlled. If there are a lot of people that need to have a particular procedure and there are only a finite number of doctors that can perform that procedure there is no choice but for a patient to wait until a doctor comes free. There is no way for doctors to start charging more to slow the demand and there is no incentive for other doctors to enter that supply chain to perform that service.
It may be nice to say that they get their healthcare for free but is it really free if the price is your quality of life or the length of your life? Economics is blind to politics.