12/03/2014 09:34 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST

Nova Scotia years away from meeting benchmarks on wait times: health minister

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia is years away from meeting national benchmarks on wait times for hip and knee replacements, the provincial health minister said Wednesday after the auditor general found the province lags all others on the issue.

Only 43 per cent of knee replacements and 58 per cent of hip replacements in Nova Scotia met a six-month national benchmark last year — the lowest rates in the country, Michael Pickup said in releasing his first report as auditor general.

Pickup said his audit found that Nova Scotia does not have a plan to meet national wait times for elective surgeries despite the fact that an orthopedic working group has been meeting for nearly two years.

He said while the surgeries may be considered non-emergency procedures, they are nonetheless significant in a province with an aging population.

"It is critical," Pickup said.

Last year, for instance, the average wait time for knee replacement surgeries in Nova Scotia was 615 days, his report said. The national benchmark is 180 days.

Pickup also noted that recent estimates by the Health Department say about $35 million is needed to start completing 90 per cent of hip and knee replacements within the six-month benchmark. An additional $7.7 million would then be needed annually to maintain the standard.

But Health Minister Leo Glavine said the government doesn't have that kind of money to spend in order to fix the wait times problem in a single year.

He said although progress is being made, it will take "some years down the road" to meet national benchmarks.

"We have such a wait list challenge that it is going to take time for that catch-up to really occur," Glavine said.

He said a co-ordinator was recently hired to look at capacity across the health system in order to schedule those needing surgeries in hospitals that have the operating time and surgeons available.

Pickup's report says wait list delays happen because some surgeons do not submit patient booking information in a timely manner, with nearly 25 per cent of the submissions at least a week late. He also found that opportunities to carry out surgeries were lost because operating room time is not used to its potential.

"Simply put, if an operating room is not being efficiently utilized, it may extend the actual wait times," he said.

NDP health critic Dave Wilson pointed out that the Liberal 2013 campaign platform included promises to create a provincewide surgical plan and meet the six-month standard for hip and knee replacements.

"It's concerning that there's no plan," said Wilson.

Pickup's report also detected security problems with the software system used for records at the Department of Community Services. It said Pickup's office was able to gain access to sensitive personal information including detailed case notes, names of children taken into care and financial information.

The problem has since been rectified by the department, Pickup said.