Long waiting lists for elective surgery in Australia are a major issue for people seeking medical treatment, particularly in the public health system. Extended waiting times can lead to serious declines in affected individuals’ overall health and well-being.
Elective surgery means non-emergency surgery which is booked in advance, usually as a result of a specialist clinical assessment. It includes operations such as knee replacements, hip replacements, tonsillectomy, dialysis access surgery, and cataract surgery.
Waiting for operations can be a significant source of stress and anxiety, particularly for people in pain or discomfort, as well as their families, loved ones and carers. Although it’s called ‘elective’ surgery, that doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary.
Are things improving?
Recent data released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that the situation across the country is starting to improve, after waiting lists ballooned at the height of the COVID pandemic, with many operations becoming temporarily unavailable, followed by a concerted effort from medical professionals to clear the backlog.
In 2021-2022, 50 per cent of patients waited at least 40 days for admission to hospital after being placed on the elective surgery waiting list (this number was more like 50 days in 2020-2021).
Current numbers have plenty of room for improvement, but are similar to the situation in 2017-2018.
There are a number of issues contributing to elective surgery waiting lists. One is the shortage of funding and resources, limiting the number of surgeries that can be performed each day. Another factor is the shortage of trained medical staff, such as surgeons and nurses.
In addition, the increasing demand for elective surgery as the Australian population ages is contributing to longer wait times.
According to AIHW data, 623,000 patients were admitted from public hospital waiting lists in 2021-22, down from closer to 800,000 in previous years. At the same time, 784,000 patients were added to elective surgery waiting lists (a decline from previous years).
Across the country, waiting lists for elective surgery vary greatly, depending on the individual’s location and the type of surgery they need.
Some people experience much longer waiting times than others.
While some individuals are able to speed up the process by accessing private healthcare or seeking treatment overseas, these options are clearly not feasible for everyone.
Official data shows the situation is particularly inequitable for Indigenous Australians, with 50 percent waiting 50 days for elective surgery compared to 50 per cent waiting 39 days among the general population.