If you find yourself in need of an elective surgical procedure, strap yourself in for a long game of waiting. As the newest data shows, Australia’s public hospitals are in the midst of a surgical backlog crisis.
The triage floor of a public hospital is a place of perfect polarity, with scenes of chaotic action and mundane waiting separated by just a single door.
While not a second is wasted in an emergency ward (or any ward), with doctors and nurses pushing the boundaries of multitasking at every opportunity, the plastic seats of a waiting room can hold the same bodies for hours on end.
Now, as new research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reveals, the waiting game for patients in line for elective surgeries goes far beyond that. According to the data, the average waiting time for non-emergency surgery is at its highest level in 20 years.
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The most recent collected data has seen the number of patients undergoing elective surgery increase by 18 per cent compared to the previous year, so why are our waiting lists still so long?
Unfortunately, the extensive waiting lists are a long-lasting repercussion of the global pandemic that first tore through our public health system in 2020. The disruption caused by years of lockdowns, Covid patient admissions and shifted priorities has left almost every sector of the industry reeling.
“Public hospitals made concerted efforts during 2020 to 2021 and 2022 to 2023 to work through procedures earlier delayed when non-urgent surgeries were suspended,” explains AIHW spokesperson Clara Jellie. “But because of these earlier delays, overall waiting times for people admitted for care have increased.”
What does the data reveal?
According to the newly released national statistics, the number of admissions to hospitals from public elective surgery waiting lists rose from 623,000 to 735,500 over the past year.
Half of all patients admitted from a public elective surgery waiting list were done so within 49 days. This number has increased from the year before, with patients in 2021 to 2022 being admitted for their elective procedure within 40 days. The percentage of patients who waited longer than 365 days to be admitted for surgery was 9.6 per cent, a notable increase from the pre-pandemic levels (2.1 per cent).
The extended waiting periods explored in the recent data strictly refer to patients seeking elective surgery, with the majority of urgent care patients receiving an admission within 30 days. Statistically speaking, 33 per cent of all patients admitted for care from an elective surgery waiting list were considered to be within the most urgent category.
Overall, public hospital emergency departments saw a slight increase in presentations over the past year, from 8.97 million to 8.8 million, with 29 per cent of these patients being admitted to hospital for further care.
What is the gold standard for admissions?
In order to prioritise resources, public hospitals abide by an admissions grading system, used to determine the urgency of each presenting patient. For elective surgeries, patients are assigned to one of three clinical urgency categories and placed on a waiting list.
Graded as either most urgent, urgent or semi-urgent, patients are recommended to receive treatment within 30, 90 or 365 days respectively. Overall in the past year, 17 per cent of patients were categorised as ‘most urgent’, meaning their conditions require resuscitation or emergency intervention, while 76 per cent of presenting elective surgical patients were categorised as urgent or semi-urgent.
The data reveals only 65 per cent of patients received treatment within the recommended timeframe for their category, a number that has slightly decreased from 67 per cent the year before. Regardless, almost all patients in the most urgent category (requiring resuscitation) were seen immediately.
Which states will wait the longest?
While this data explores public hospital waiting periods as a whole, research published earlier this year revealed the states with the longest wait times and elective surgery backlog.
According to the data, Victorians will experience the most tedious wait for elective surgery, with a state average of 281 days. Next, sits Queensland with an average of 273 days, while New South Wales residents will generally need to wait 224 days.