Increased demand for surgery leads to longer wait times

1.5 minute read

17 June 2020

  • 25% of Australians on public hospital waiting list are now able to access non-urgent surgery as COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift 
  • Public hospital waiting times are now 4.5 times longer than private hospitals
  • Surge predicted in demand for surgery in coming months

If you’re one of the thousands of Australians hoping to go under the knife soon, you may be waiting longer than you think, as the impact of COVID-19 hits elective surgery waiting lists nationwide. The backlog of patients is tipped to explode to 425,000, which will almost double the current waiting lists in most states.

Public and private beds during Covid-19

Private hospitals specialise in non-emergency care, with 7/10 cases of elective surgery taking place in a private hospital. At the start of the pandemic some state governments ‘purchased’ a number of beds from private hospitals for a set period of time, ensuring availability to help support the fight against COVID-19. These private beds will remain part of the public system until that period has passed, and patients will be prioritised based on how urgent their need is, rather than whether they are a public or private patient. 
The procedures announced (on 27 April) to recommencing following are estimated to represent approximately 25% of the total public waiting list for surgery in Australia – this means up to 75% of elective surgeries are still suspended at time of writing. 

Why does it matter if I wait longer for elective surgery?

“Many of the health conditions requiring elective surgery can be disabling, painful and life threatening,” explains Members Health Fund Alliance CEO, Matthew Koce. “Aside from the profound impact on quality of life, we know delays in elective surgery can have long term medical consequences”. 
A long wait for medically necessary surgery can result in:

  • further deterioration of your condition
  • reliance on strong pain medications
  • a significant impact on your mental health from living with pain and/or reduced mobility
  • longer recovery and rehabilitation times, affecting your ability to get back to work doing what you love, helping the community 

How long are hospital admission waiting times?

Before the pandemic there was already a distinct difference between actual public hospital waiting times and the publics perceived wait times. In a decades long study of healthcare in Australia conducted by IPSOS, the average public hospital wait time more than doubled in the last 20 years, reaching a record high of 109 days - which is more than 4.5 times longer than wait times in the private system. Interestingly, the public perception of wait times (prior to actually experiencing them) was far shorter. 

So, given the huge disruption to non-urgent surgery in the wake of COVID-19, how long could you be waiting on a public hospital waiting list for your knee replacement, or ligament repair, or cataract removal surgery? And will the private system really be any better?

It is anticipated that Australia will experience a significant increase in demand for surgery in the months after the pandemic has passed. “We’re fully expecting in six to 12 months’ time there’s going to be massive pent-up demand for surgery,” says Dr Rachel David from Private Healthcare Australia. 

This expected surge in demand will put increased pressure on the existing public waiting list. Waiting times will almost double in some states, with median wait times potentially increasing from four months to 18 months. Dr David explains that “the public sector is not going to be able to meet demand, so to get quick access to elective surgery, people are going to need their private health funds.” 

“Health funds have been paying claims for elective surgery throughout the COVID-19 pandemic period and will continue paying claims for their members into the future,” says Mr Koce.

Now isn’t the time to ditch private health insurance. The public hospital waiting list is already under strain, with patients waiting an average of four months for admission. The impact of COVID-19 on wait times is anticipated to be significant and could see waiting times blow out to 18 months.

At Emergency Services Health, we’re here to protect our members from the unexpected. Your health is important, don’t run the risk of longer waiting lists. You’ve had our backs in the community during this pandemic, let us have yours in the months ahead.