Geri Clark, 90, from Ancaster, Ont., has just started physiotherapy for a hip fracture. She received her surgery within six hours. (Melanie Glanz/CBC)

Broken hips are the most common reason for urgent surgery in Canada, but only one-third of patients in Ontario receive surgery within what researchers call the safe 24-hour guideline.

A hip fracture affects the femur, the largest bone in the body, and it needs to be repaired quickly. Studies suggest waiting more than a day after the patient arrives in hospital, as well as being uncomfortable, is associated with a higher risk of complications such as pneumonia, blood clots, heart attacks and death.

Dr. Daniel Pincus, a resident orthopedic doctor at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, and his colleagues analyzed data on 42,000 patients with an average age of nearly 81 who had hip fractures repaired across Ontario from 2009 to 2014.

In Monday’s issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Pincus found the average wait for the surgery was nearly 39 hours. Only 34 per cent of patients were operated on within a day.

“Twenty-four hours is the cutoff we identified when the risk of complications started to increase,” Pincus said in an interview.

The complications occur not necessarily as a result of the fracture, Pincus said, but as a result of waiting for surgery. The wait means patients lie in bed, not able to eat.

Factors that led to delayed surgery included:

  • Transferring patients to another hospital.
  • Consultations before surgery, such as for anesthesia.
  • Waits for echocardiograms.

The study’s authors have some suggestions to treat people sooner. In many cases, hospitals book elective hip procedures in the morning, before operating on urgent surgical patients. Pincus and his team say hospitals could flip the order to improve waits for the urgent procedures.

They said another solution works in Manitoba, where rural hospitals are matched to surgical hospitals that agree to prioritize rural patients.