Waiting in Line Can Harm Your Health

Hospital waits aren't just annoying, they can make sick people sicker. Mathematical models could help produce better outcomes for everyone.

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Canadians are no strangers to waiting especially when it comes to health care. In September 2014, the Canadian Institute for Health Information released a report revealing hospital wait times for the majority of patients to see a doctor at 161 hospitals across the country. Most wait times were around 5.6 hours with a Winnipeg hospital topping the list with the longest wait time of 9.1 hours. The discussion about how long Canadians need to wait to access health care seems to be one of our only gripes about our internationally recognized system. But imagine if you didn’t have to wait.

Growing up surrounded by doctors, David Stanford, a professor in the department of Statistical and Actuarial Sciences at Western University, could see how wait times were impacting patient survivability. It has since been his goal to apply his mathematical skills to heal the healthcare system. He will tell you that the longer you wait, the sicker you get and the sicker you get, the higher the likelihood that when you finally receive treatment, it will not be as effective.

According to Stanford, “Most efforts to improve wait times focus on creating more value for customers with fewer resources to eliminate inefficiencies in specific health care settings. However, to achieve optimum wait times, decision makers need to possess an appreciation of congestion phenomena fundamentals like how randomness affects wait times and how to respond accordingly.

In collaboration with researchers from Australia and New Zealand, he developed the Accumulating Priority Queue model which takes into account the seriousness of a patient’s the illness and the amount of time that patient has already spent waiting. This model can inform the discussion of wait times and can positively contribute to the policy decisions made by health care leaders to ensure you are waiting less.

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David Stanford is a Full Professor in the Department of Statistical & Actuarial Sciences at Western University. Following his PhD, he worked at Bell-Northern Research on queueing analyses of switching systems and operator pools. He has been at Western since 1988. His interests in modelling waiting times in health care systems date to 2004, when the federal-provincial accord on improving patient access was signed. Since that time, the needs for quicker patient access not only in Canada, but internationally, has been a prime motivator for his research into queues. His main methodological contribution since has been his 2014 work in the journal Queueing Systems with an international team comprising Peter Taylor of Melbourne University and Ilze Ziedins of Auckland University on the Accumulating Priority Queue, which factors a patient’s waiting time into their priority status. He has also worked extensively on transplant queues, most notably establishing the impact of blood type and cross-transplantation on patient waiting times.

David Stanford’s teaching was recognized in 1999 with a Scotiabank / UWO Alumni Association / University Students’ Council Award of Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. He is a past president of the Canadian Operational Research Society (CORS), and a recipient of the CORS Service Award.

Allison Guy is a freelance science writer who is passionate about increasing scientific literacy and enhancing scientific discourse among the public. She holds a MSc in neuroscience from the University of Toronto and has been working as a drug development consultant for the pharmaceutical industry both domestically and abroad for the last 5 years. She is also a lecturer at Ryerson University in the Department of Chemistry and Biology and at the G. Raymond Chang School where she teaches pharmaceutical development and regulation.