Pandemic draws out elective surgery wait

Jack Gramenz |

Hundreds of thousands of Australians had to wait seven weeks or more for elective surgery procedures, if they got them at all, as hospitals worked through backlogs during the pandemic.

The median wait time for an elective surgery was 48 days in the 2020/21 financial year, an increase of nine days compared to the previous year, new data released on Tuesday shows.

The wait was even longer for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, half of whom waited at least 57 days, according to figures in the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report.

They were also over-represented on surgical waiting lists, the AIHW says, making up 4.1 per cent of the people waiting for surgery and 3.3 per cent of the population.

Elective surgeries were suspended in March 2020, with exceptions for urgent surgeries for people whose condition could quickly deteriorate and become an emergency.

AIHW spokesman Adrian Webster says the decision was made “to ensure the health system maintained adequate capacity to manage the COVID-19 pandemic”.

This also created backlogs in people requiring surgery, with 893,000 patients added to waiting lists in the year up to June 30, up 55,000 on the previous year.

Some 754,600 people were admitted to hospital from the waiting lists, up from 688,000 the year before, but still a few thousand shy of pre-pandemic levels.

The wait was shortest for those who needed a lump removed from their breasts, with a median wait of 16 days.The less urgent septoplasty – a procedure to fix deviated septums – had a median wait time of 330 days and the longest of the 25 most common surgeries.

Those waiting for a tonsil removal (123 days), treatment for varicose veins (94 days) and knee replacements (85 days) saw the greatest increase in median wait times.

The number of patients who waited longer than a year to be admitted for surgery also ballooned to 7.6 per cent of the waitlist, compared to 2.8 per cent in the previous year.

The third and last category of elective surgeries are for conditions that still need treatment within a year as they cause pain, dysfunction or disability.

The data does not include information from the suspensions of non-urgent elective surgery in 2021/22, figures for which are due to be released in late 2022.

Dr Webster said the data does provide valuable insight into Australia’s public hospital system.

“This, and the AIHW’s ongoing monitoring, will contribute to the evidence-base and inform future decisions,’ Dr Webster said.

New South Wales, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory managed to increase the number of surgeries performed compared to 2019/20.

Victoria decreased for a second year, reflecting “ongoing limits” put in place to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which affected the “volume, type and timing of elective surgery procedures undertaken”, the AIHW said.