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How Long It Takes to Get Gender-Affirming Surgery Across Canada

Posted by Dr. Hugh McLean on 10 November 2020
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In the recent years, transgender health care in Canada has seen dramatic improvements. More provinces have expanded their public healthcare packages to accommodate gender-affirming surgeries, including FTM/N top surgery or genital reconstruction procedures, for gender dysphoria treatment. However, access and availability of transition-related treatments are still far from reach for most members of the LGBTQ+ community because of the long wait times. 

What’s the average waiting time to get a gender-affirming surgery in Canada? The country’s first study on transgender patients’ experiences published in 2017 by researchers from the University of British Columbia revealed it’s anywhere from one month to nine years. The results of the study showed frustrating inconsistencies in trans patients’ experience across the country.

In this article, we break down the study’s key findings to pinpoint where the bottleneck is coming from and what’s causing the delay in delivering life-saving surgical procedures for the Canadian LGBTQ+ population.

1. Surgery Readiness Assessment

The application process towards a gender-affirming surgery in Canada is divided into several steps. The first one is a surgery readiness assessment. Whether you are getting a transition-related operation done from a publicly funded or private clinic, a surgical readiness assessment is required by most surgeons to ensure that a potential patient is prepared and will get the best results post-surgery. 

According to Trans Care BC, the primary criteria for most types of gender-affirming surgery in British Columbia are:

  • Persistent gender dysphoria 
  • Capacity to consent to the procedure  
  • Medical and mental health conditions are reasonably well-controlled
  • Being of the age of majority (In BC, the age of majority is 19. If you’re under 19, your surgeon may recommend additional surgery readiness assessment steps).

The Assessment Process

Before even receiving a readiness assessment, the individual needs to follow several processes to qualify for one. This can range from:

Getting referred to an assessor through your primary care provider: 

  • They can send a referral for a surgical readiness assessment directly to a qualified assessor, or
  • Can send a request to your province’s health care office who can refer you to a qualified assessor in your community, or
  • They are a qualified assessor who can carry out the assessment themselves.

Depending on the type of gender-reaffirming surgery, one or two assessments carried out by different assessors may be required. Surgical readiness assessments can be covered if they are qualified assessors working in the publicly-funded health care system. You can also have them conducted by qualified private assessors, such as psychologists or clinical counsellors.

Getting assessed:

Once you’ve been referred, you have to wait for a schedule for your surgical readiness assessment. The actual appointment lasts between one to two hours, where you’ll discuss your gender identity, medical history, and surgical aftercare plan. In some cases, you may be asked to come back to provide additional information.

Get a recommendation:

The qualified assessor may or may not recommend you for surgery or recommend you return for further assessment. They would send their recommendation directly to your primary care physician, who will send you a referral for surgery.

 An individual sits in a waiting room

Waiting Time for Surgery Readiness Assessment

In British Columbia, most people (60%) easily or very easily got referred to an assessor, and half of these trans people (50%) did not have to spend any money on their assessment appointment(s). 

Half (50%) of the respondents in BC waited 150 days or less between the referral and their most recent surgery readiness assessment appointment. This is in contrast to the average of 180 days other patients in the country reported. However, BC’s wait time also had unusual fluctuations, with some people waiting for a single day to as long as 1,825 days or more than five years.

On the other hand, the average wait time between referral and assessment in BC also differed according to the types of gender-affirming surgery planned.

  • Vaginoplasty – 212 days
  • Labiaplasty – 255 days
  • Chest surgery – 318 days
  • Orchiectomy – 322 days
  • Hysterectomy-336 days
  • Tracheal shave* – 364 days
  • Phalloplasty- 383 days
  • Breast augmentation -572 days
  • Facial feminization – 607 days

2. Funding Approval

Data suggests that for all types of gender-affirming surgery in Canada, 71% had their surgery paid for, at least partially, through a government health care plan. The vast majority (93%) only had one source of funding. Almost seven out of 10 Canadians had their transition-related surgery funded with a public health plan, and one in three people said they used their own money as their sole source for surgery funding.

Unfortunately, not everyone receives approval for the life-changing surgery they had in mind. Aside from having an existing medical condition that increases the risk of being on general anesthesia, many hopefuls are deemed ineligible due to two primary reasons:

  • Breast augmentation criteria 
    MSP criteria specifies that the patient should have been on hormone replacement therapy for at least 18 months (unless not clinically indicated) and that there’s been less than an AA cup of breast growth or significant asymmetric breast growth greater than one and a half cup size difference. Most respondents feel that these are not enough to make them feel good or feminine enough about their bodies
  • BMI (body mass index)
    Many gender-affirming surgeons have BMI eligibility criteria of 35 and below. They say they will not operate on an individual above this BMI due to hospital or clinical restrictions, clinical safety, and patient results.

3. Waiting for Surgery

After getting approved for funding, the vast majority of participants (84%) said they did not have any problem getting a referral to a surgeon for gender-affirming surgery. More than half (57%) also said they were able to choose the surgeon they wanted.

The average wait time between getting an approval and surgery date was less than 12 months or less for half of the surgeries in BC. In other parts of Canada, the wait time was eight months or less for half the surgeries.

The researchers said each patient’s experiences were so diverse, with waiting times ranging from a month up to 108 months or nine years. The longest wait times were reported in the following gender-reaffirming surgeries in Canada:

  • Orchiectomy
  • Breast augmentation
  • Phalloplasty
  • Chest surgery

Interestingly, the researchers also noted that 50% of the people taking the survey were currently waiting for their surgery and/or had a scheduled surgery date, and had already been waiting for at least 17 months. Half of the people who were now waiting for surgery but did not have a scheduled surgery date had been waiting 11 months or more when they took the survey.

Non-binary person in the hospital

What’s Taking So Long?

Elizabeth Saewyc, one of the lead authors on the study, gave VICE a few valid points regarding what her thoughts were on the potential causes of the long waiting process for accessing gender-affirming surgery in Canada.

  • Different training in general physicians and frontline medical staff 
    • Saewyc says the wait time during the pre-approval stage could be due to doctors who are clueless about where to begin, contributing to the “lack of clarity in the pathway” and impeding the transition process for trans patients.  
  • Capacity issue 
    • There’s a lack of surgeons and specialists in the field, which is why it takes time before one can get an appointment with, say, a top surgeon. 
  • Lack of specialty clinics
    • For “bottom” surgeries, like vaginoplasty and phalloplasty, Canadians are limited in choice to only one clinic located in Montreal.

Wait Times Worsened by the COVID-19 Pandemic

The long wait times for gender-affirming surgery in Canada have been exacerbated exponentially by the unexpected arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both public and private hospitals and clinics had to cancel scheduled surgeries and other transition-related procedures to adhere to stringent lockdown restrictions placed in different countries worldwide. Currently, we see many health care providers tackling their backlogs with surgeries booked up to 2022.

The Negative Impact of Long Wait Times

One of the biggest concerns caused by the long wait times in gender-affirming surgery in Canada would be its detrimental effects on the mental health of the LGBTQ+ population, who are already at an increased risk for:

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders
  • Substance use
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Suicide and self-harm

This is cemented in a quote by N. Nicole Nussbaum, former president of Canadian Professional Association for Transgender Health and staff lawyer at Legal Aid Ontario, “Trans people are at the highest risk of suicide and self-harm between the period that they’ve mentally decided to transition and when they complete their medical transition.”

For inquiries about gender-affirming surgery in Canada or to learn more about what an FTM top surgery at McLean Clinic is like, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. A member of our team will be more than happy to answer your questions.

Contact McLean Clinic today!


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