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Australians Experiencing Extended Wait Times for Elective Surgery

According to the report, the data clearly shows that the public hospital system’s ability to treat patients on time is declining.

Australians waiting for elective surgery now face a wait twice as long as 20 years ago, as emergency departments struggle with overcrowding.

For example, the median wait time for elective surgery has reached a record high of 49 days, up from 27 days in 2001-2002, according to the Australian Medical Association’s (AMA) public hospital report card (pdf) published on April 19.

The report also highlights a worrying decline in timely access to category two planned surgeries, such as heart valve replacements and surgery for fractures, which have dropped by 23 percent over five years, hitting a record low.

The number of these surgeries performed per 80 Australians has also decreased from 0.915 to 0.837 in the same period.

AMA President Professor Steve Robson stressed the urgency of these procedures.

“These surgeries are essential—they are not elective or cosmetic, and every day of waiting can bring serious pain and increased risks to patients,” Mr. Robson said.

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The AMA advocates for using the term “planned surgery” rather than “elective surgery” to emphasize the importance and life-saving nature of these procedures and tests.

Mr. Robson also highlighted the decline in the proportion of hospital beds in public hospitals, with only 14.3 beds available per 1,000 Australians over 65, compared to 32.5 beds in 1991-92.

Highest Emergency Wait Times in a Decade

Emergency department wait times have also hit a decade-high, with fewer patients being seen on time across all categories.

While critical emergencies like resuscitation were promptly addressed, wait times for category four and category five emergencies have not improved over the past ten years.

An ambulance is parked in front of the Emergency and Trauma service at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, on July 21, 2022. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
An ambulance is parked in front of the Emergency and Trauma service at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, on July 21, 2022. (Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

“The data are clear, the ability of our public hospital system to treat patients on time is falling, and has been falling since well before the impact of COVID-19,” the report states.

In 2022–23, only 56 percent of people across all categories completed their emergency presentation within four hours or less, a 5 percent decrease from 2021, marking the lowest rate since 2011.

Remarkably, the Northern Territory achieved the best performance, with its emergency departments treating patients within four hours 61 percent of the time.

‘Unacceptable’: AMA President Calls on Health Ministers for More Action

Mr. Robson has urged health ministers to take immediate action to address the challenges faced by hospitals.

“Last year, we welcomed the federal government’s announcement of increased public funding for hospitals and the removal of the 6.5 percent funding growth cap,” he said, emphasizing the need for action now rather than waiting for the changes to take effect in 2025.

“The current wait times for planned surgery are almost double what they were 20 years ago, which is unacceptable.”

In April 2023, the AMA called for an urgent overhaul of the country’s public health system following a report revealing the lowest hospital performance levels since the 90s.

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