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Elective surgery waiting times pain: Fewer patients being treated on time

Reviewed by Head of Health Insurance, Lana Hambilton
5 min read
12 May 2023
a disappointed woman waiting in a medical waiting room with doctors in the background

Australia’s public health system has long been regarded as one of the best in the world, but even our robust healthcare system is straining under a growing weight, seeing more patients wait longer than recommended for surgery.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows that in the 2021-22 financial year, the number of days patients had to wait for surgery increased by 21% compared to the previous year.^1

Furthermore, the number of patients waiting more than one year for elective surgery more than tripled from 2017-18 to 2021-22 (1.8% of patients to 6.3%, a jump of 250%).2

This is on top of what the Australian Medical Association (AMA) calls the ‘hidden’ waitlist.3 To be placed on the elective surgery waiting list, patients must first see a specialist to discuss their treatment.

The waiting times for these appointments, and other outpatient specialist services (treatment where patients are not technically admitted to hospital) can take years. For example, 90% of Queensland patients needing ear nose and throat services had been waiting an average of 725 days to see a specialist in the fourth quarter of 2022.4

Compare the Market’s Head of Health Insurance, Lana Hambilton, says this further highlights the importance of having private health insurance.

“Private health insurance helps members to avoid the public waiting list and get treatment sooner, depending on how busy the operating surgeon is,” says Ms Hambilton, “private health gives you a choice in your healthcare that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and can make a serious difference in terms of your wellbeing.”

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Waiting times going up across the nation

Using AIHW data for the whole country, it is clear there is a worrying trend in waiting times increasing for elective surgeries, which was exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic.

While things were worse in the 2020-2021 financial year due to COVID-19 forcing restrictions on elective surgery, the 2021-22 numbers are still higher than in previous years. The line graph below shows the trend for Australia and each state specifically from 2017-18 to 2021-22.

Almost all states and territories show that the average number of days waiting for elective surgery is increasing. The only one to improve waiting times was the Australian Capital Territory, who went from an average of 344 days to 281, an improvement of 20% (rounded to the nearest whole number).

Tasmania had the worst increase in this time, which went from an average of 238 days to 413 days in five years – an increase of 54%.

Ms Hambilton says that the data shows Australia is still feeling the hangover from the pandemic, but the problem was getting worse before COVID-19 hit the news.

a line chart showcasing the change in elective surgery waiting times for different regions within Australia

Source: Elective surgery. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Government. 2022.

More patients overdue for elective surgery across Australia’s most populous states

While AIHW data is released for every financial year, Australia’s more populated states provide more regular reporting every quarter (except for Western Australia which reports monthly). Roughly one-in-four patients in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia have not had their elective surgery on time – and these numbers have gotten worse year-on-year.

  • New South Wales: there were 99,300 as of December 2022. Of all elective surgeries done in this time 76.6% were on time, down 6.7% from same period the year before. Additionally, 17,074 patients were waiting longer than recommended, an increase of 59%.5
  • Victoria: there were 82,613 patients waiting in quarter four of 2022. Three quarters of elective surgeries were on time (75.3%), a 12% decrease from 87.3% the year before. During this time 11,262 patients were waiting longer than recommended, an increase of 199.6% on the year before.6
  • Queensland: the ‘sunshine state’ saw 59,307 patients waiting for elective surgery as of December 2022. In this final quarter 77.8% surgeries were performed on time, a downturn of 10.8% from the year before. While we know that 8,601 patients were waiting longer than recommended, Queensland Health statistics did not compare this particular statistic to previous years, so it is unclear whether this is an improvement or not. 7
  • Western Australia: unlike Australia’s eastern states, Western Australia reports on elective surgery waiting times monthly (with a month or so delay for reporting). The most recent data from February 2023 shows 27,360 patients were waiting for elective surgery, and 76% were seen on time, down 10.3% from the year before. Furthermore, 6,553 patients waited longer than recommended, a 60.1% increase on year before.8

How private health insurance benefits the customers and the country

The increasing wait times for elective surgery highlight how private health insurance can benefit individuals and Australia as a whole, as Ms Hambilton explains.

“The public waiting times are generally getting worse, putting the public health system under increasing pressure. Australians choosing to go through the private health system helps ease pressure on the public system and public waiting list” says Ms Hambilton.

“This is why the Australian Government has incentives to encourage people to purchase private health cover, such as the health insurance rebate and age-based discounts. Furthermore, you avoid paying the Medicare Levy Surcharge, where people over a certain income threshold who don’t have cover will be charged an additional surcharge on top of the regular Medicare Levy.”

“Having health insurance eases pressure on the public system and offers you greater choice in who treats you and when you are treated, all of which are powerful reasons to have cover,” says Ms Hambilton.

^ This statistic from the AIHW data covers on 90% of all patients, known as the 90th percentile.

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1 Elective surgery waiting times 2021-22. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Government. 2022.
2 Elective surgery. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australian Government. 2022.
3 Shining a light on the elective surgery ‘hidden’ waiting list. Australian Medical Association. 2022.
4 Queensland Reporting Hospitals: Specialist Outpatient. Department of Health, Queensland Government. 2023.
5 Data portal. Bureau of Health Information, Health NSW. 2023.
6 Elective surgery. Victorian Agency for Health Information. Victoria State Government. 2023.
7 Queensland Reporting Hospitals: Elective Surgery. Department of Health, Queensland Government. 2023.
8 Elective Surgery Monthly Report. Department of Health, Government of Western Australia. 2023.

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