Why Canadians Travel for Spine Surgery

June 26, 2023

When people suffer from spine pain, their quality of life and ability to work and enjoy physical activity declines daily. Far too often, the pain can be debilitating, and many who suffer lose workdays. The effect of pain can lead to job loss, mental decline and even narcotic addiction. 

People with chronic neck and back pain should not have to wait to see a spine specialist. Many Canadians choose medical tourism or spine surgery in the United States because the wait times to see a spine surgeon are only one to three weeks. 

Millions of Canadians Live With Moderate to Severe Chronic Pain

The Canadian Pain Task Force report published in 2019 estimates that one in five Canadians lives in chronic pain. Additionally, two-thirds of Canadians who reported living with chronic pain said it was moderate (52%) to severe (14%), and 50% have lived with this pain for over ten years.

Quality of life is crucial to people’s ability to work and pursue happiness in their daily lives. When access to pain-relieving treatment is limited because of the Canadian health care system, the quality of life declines dramatically. People in pain should not have to wait to be seen, evaluated and treated.  

Waiting Your Turn — Current Spine Surgery Wait Times in British Columbia and Alberta Provinces

The Fraser Institute released its 2022 annual report on medical treatment wait times in Canada. Those who live in either the British Columbia or Alberta provinces experience a median wait time to be treated by a general specialist of 25 weeks in British Columbia and 33.3 weeks in Alberta. If you suffer from spine-related problems, however, the wait time from general practitioner referral to treatment with a neurosurgeon is 71 weeks in British Columbia and 48 weeks in Alberta. For an orthopedic spine surgeon, you might wait 61 weeks in Alberta and 42 weeks in British Colombia.

In British Columbia province, for the last quarter of 2022, 1,840 spinal and back cases were waiting for surgery. According to the British Columbia Wait Times website, 90% of those surgeries were completed within 49 weeks. These numbers do not include the wait time to see a specialist, only treatment after seeing the specialist. In Alberta, the numbers are similar — 90% of patients wait 50.1 weeks to complete surgical treatment.

What Are the Risks of Waiting on Spine Surgery?

Not all spine surgery requires immediate attention. Patients with degenerative spinal conditions with gradually increasing pain may have time to consider their treatment options. Alternatively, injuries sustained through accidents like car crashes may be severe enough to warrant emergency surgery to prevent permanent nerve damage and paralysis. 

Time is also of the essence when discs or vertebrae compress the spinal nerves and cause significant pain and loss of motor function. Decompressive surgery can correct pinched nerves before they cause permanent damage. Here is a list of other risks of waiting on spine surgery:

  • Neurological decline
  • Progressive signs of weakness in legs/feet or arms/hands due to spinal nerve compression
  • Neurological deficits becoming permanent due to nerve damage
  • Intractable pain and suffering
  • Development of cauda equina syndrome, a urinary or bowel dysfunction caused by spinal cord compression in the lumbar region
  • Loss of sleep
  • A decline in activities of daily living
  • Lost wages
  • Narcotics dependence or addiction

Wait Times to See a Spine Specialist in the United States

The United States is one of the best countries for medical tourism because the average wait time to see a spine surgeon is about 15.9 days. The differences between Canada and the United States are alarming, considering the physical and mental impact chronic pain can have on patients’ daily lives. Many U.S. patients do not need a referral from their general practitioner to see a spine specialist. Unlike the U.S., the Canadian government determines appointments with specialists based on a priority and need basis instead of patient desire or willingness to pay.

At the Desert Institute of Spine Care, your wait time is one to three weeks!

  • How long is the wait to schedule a virtual second opinion with a DISC surgeon? Virtual second-opinion patients can be scheduled within three weeks. 
  • How long is the wait time for a Canadian to be seen in the office for evaluation? We routinely schedule Canadians in our office within one to two weeks. If a specific surgeon is requested and is out of the office, scheduling an appointment may take two to three weeks.
  • How long would it take for a patient to receive an MRI after being seen by a DISC surgeon? The wait time for scheduling an MRI is one week for cash-paying patients and two weeks if insurance authorization is needed. We can often schedule an MRI the same day or the day after an initial appointment for Canadians traveling to our office in Phoenix, Arizona.
  • How soon could a Canadian be scheduled at DISC if they need spine surgery? Patients with a current MRI and a virtual second opinion with a DISC surgeon can be scheduled to come to Phoenix, be seen in the office and have surgery during the same trip over one week before traveling home to Canada. However, the recovery time will depend on the type of surgery. 

Traveling to the United States for Ultra Minimally Invasive Surgical Techniques

In addition to incredibly long wait times in Canada, there are other reasons Canadians come to the U.S. for health care. The access to immediate care In the U.S. within two to three weeks is very appealing when suffering weeks upon months of spine pain. 

Many Canadians come to the United States seeking spine surgeon expertise and ultra-minimally invasive surgery or new technology advances not offered in their hometown. In addition, Canadian patients perceive the quality of health care and the reputation of U.S. surgeons and surgical facilities to be above that of Canada.

Over the past 20 years, DISC has developed and pioneered a new category of ultra-minimally invasive spinal techniques called endoscopic spine surgery. Through a ¼ inch incision, our surgeons can selectively pinpoint and treat herniated discs, spinal stenosis and degenerative discs. This advanced technique provides pain relief, gets patients back to enjoying life faster and is truly outpatient — patients go home within two hours of surgery.

Canadians Should Have Access to Cervical Artificial Disc Replacement

Modern technological advancements in cervical spine surgery have brought about artificial disc replacement (ADR). Removing the damaged disc and replacing it with an artificial one allows the patient to preserve motion in the neck. ADR has an overall satisfaction rate of 86%, whereas traditional disc replacement, known as anterior cervical discectomy with fusion (ACDF), has an overall satisfaction rate of 73.9%. 

Not all patients suffering from neck pain are good candidates for ADR. For the appropriate patient, ADR is more suitable than traditional disc replacement surgery in the following ways:

  • ADR patients return to work sooner
  • ADR has a higher clinical success rate
  • There is less need for repeat surgery

The experts at DISC have been leaders of disc replacement research and clinical studies for over a decade. Our expert spine surgeons work with complex spine issues, even those that haven’t responded to previous surgery. Patients travel to Phoenix from all over the United States and internationally, seeking our surgeons’ expertise in minimally invasive spine care and alternatives to cervical spine fusion. 

Traveling for Spine Surgery From Canada to DISC Located in Phoenix, AZ 

There are nonstop and connecting daily flights from Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver to Phoenix, Arizona. DISC is located just 24 minutes north of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. 

Our professional staff can recommend local hotels offering discounts for DISC patients. We have developed a resources page for our travel patients highlighting Phoenix-area restaurants and attractions you may be interested in while visiting. Many travel to DISC and Phoenix because it is a leading vacation destination with warm average temperatures between 60 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the time of year you travel.

Patients in Pain Shouldn’t Have to Wait!

Canadians suffering in pain and unable to work, walk or enjoy their favorite physical activities can be seen within two weeks at DISC in Phoenix, Arizona. We offer in-person or virtual second opinions for spine surgery patients in the Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver areas and across Canada. 

If you don’t have an MRI and are willing to pay cash, we can help you book an appointment with an MRI imaging company in the Phoenix, AZ, area, typically within one week of your clinic appointment. Seek a virtual second opinion today!

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