How long might I have to wait for treatment in a public hospital?

The stats are in, and they show the average time public patients wait to undergo elective surgery in the last financial year has increased again – with some people waiting years for surgery.

The latest report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reveals that in 2017–18,  90 per cent of public patients were admitted to hospital  within 268 days on the elective surgery waiting list. It also states that only half of all patients were operated on within 40 days – both figures being increases on the prior year.

Other highlights from the report:

  • Patients from New South Wales faced the longest wait, with half being admitted within 55 days, followed closely by the Australian Capital Territory with 50 per cent of elective surgery patients waiting 54 days for treatment.
  • The shortest waits were in the Northern Territory, with half of all patients treated in 23 days.
  • 90 per cent of patients needing ear, nose and throat, or head and neck surgery were treated within 354 days, and eye surgery was the next longest wait, with 90 per cent of patients seen within 329 days.
  • Those needing heart surgery waited the shortest time – half being seen in just under three weeks.

To put a human face to the figures, the ABC recently reported 77-year-old Queensland pensioner Gillian Attewell waited three years to have a cataract removed from her left eye –   and she is still waiting for surgery on the right.  As a result, she can no longer enjoy her favourite hobbies and she carries a magnifying glass wherever she goes just so she can see.

Gillian’s story also illustrates the enormous impact the ‘hidden wait time’ makes.

What is the hidden wait time?

After being referred to a specialist by a GP or other health care provider as a public patient, you may think it’s a simple case of waiting a week or two for an appointment. But that’s not usually the case..

While there are no definitive statistics or studies available at this time, there is some data to peruse, and it makes for disheartening reading. South Australia publishes a quarterly report of median and maximum wait times for each hospital, by specialty area.

If you want to see a spinal specialist in SA, you could be waiting for the median 23.1 months, or the much less impressive 127.9 months – this being the maximum wait recorded. Psychiatry comes with a median wait time of four months at one hospital – and an alarming 47.2 months was the longest.

To see an orthopaedic specialist, one hospital will have you cooling your heels on average for 20 months. Ophthalmology clocked in a median wait time of 18 months at one hospital and 128.1 months at the maximum. That’s longer than 10 years.

What happens once I make it onto the wait list?

Once you’ve cleared the specialist hurdle and started the timer on the wait list, you will likely face a longer wait time than promised – though the times are certainly less lengthy than the wait for a specialist.

The most recently released findings show that elective surgery waiting times are increasing slightly from previous years.

The national average has increased from 36 days in 2013–14 to 40 days in 2017–18. And where you live makes a difference.

”In 2017–18, across the states and territories, the median waiting time for elective surgery ranged from 23 days in the Northern Territory to 55 days in New South Wales,” says AIHW spokesperson Dr Adrian Webster.

As you’d no doubt expect, wait times depend on the urgency of the procedure required. In 2017–18, the average wait to straighten a broken nose was 248 days, compared with 17 days for coronary artery bypass graft surgery.

Elective surgery as a private patient

Accessing elective surgery as a private patient is a totally different picture. As a private patient you can see a specialist almost as soon as you receive a referral from your doctor. And as long as applicable waiting periods have been served, you can choose the date and hospital for your surgery.

Private patient treatment will be expensive if you don’t have private hospital cover. But the alternative is a lengthy wait on the public hospital elective surgery waiting list.

Need hospital insurance? You may be eligible to join Defence Health. Get a quote on our website or give us a call on 1800 335 425.