Australia

‘It was a personal hell’: Elective surgery patients suffering through years-long ‘hidden’ waiting lists

Brisbane man Mal Gregory was on the waiting list for his hip surgery for five weeks.
But in reality, the wait for his elective surgery was a lot longer. After his first consult with his doctor, he says it took him two years to get an appointment with a hip specialist.
“I don’t know when they’re looking at their statistics whether that’s segregated, but from the time I presented with my concern to when I was first operated on, it was about two years and nine months all up,” Mr Gregory told SBS News.
He said this wait caused his mental health to deteriorate.
“Basically, it was a personal hell,” he said.
“I feel like my entire life was just put in neutral for two years. I had trouble performing my best at work.

“I’m a very empathetic and understanding person, I realise I’m not the only one in that predicament, and there’s probably more people in just as much pain and despair that have been waiting as long – if not longer.”

According to the Australian Medical Association (AMA), a union representing Australian doctors, Mr Gregory’s experience is one shared by thousands of people in the public health system.

‘These hidden figures are a scandal’

It says elective surgery patients are waiting up to several years on “hidden” waiting lists to see specialists in hospital outpatient clinics.
“The delay between seeing your GP, being referred and actually getting an appointment is blowing out to years for many conditions. You may think it’s not so important, but if you’re waiting to see an eye specialist and you can’t see, if often means you can’t work or drive,” AMA president Professor Steve Robson said on Friday.
Elective surgery patients can be referred to see a specialist in a public hospital outpatient clinic or in a private clinic where they generally have to pay out-of-pocket ahead of joining elective surgery wait lists.
There is no reliable national data on how long it takes patients to see a specialist in an outpatient clinic, but it can be years, Professor Robson said.
“These hidden figures are a scandal that affects hundreds and thousands of patients and impact a health system already in a logjam, including general practice that has to deal with the pressure of looking after many of these patients in the meantime,” he said.

“Elective surgery waiting times are reported nationally each year, but these numbers don’t reflect the time someone waits to see the specialist in an outpatient clinic.”

Australian Medical Association AMA President Professor Steve Robson at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on 1 September 2022. Source: AAP / MICK TSIKAS

Public hospital outpatient appointments are scheduled by levels of urgency.

Specialist consultations are recommended within 30 days for the most urgent patients and 365 days for the least urgent.
The limited data available shows many states are falling short of the performance targets, according to an AMA report launched on Friday.

Patients requiring urgent neurosurgeon appointments can wait up to 930 days in Victoria, and for an ear, nose and throat appointment, the wait can be more than 1,400 days.

Victorian Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas acknowledged the long wait times were very distressing for patients but said the problem wasn’t unique to the state.
“The COVID pandemic has had an incredible impact on the capacity of our health services and our health professionals to deliver the care that people need and expect,” she told reporters.
In Queensland, the wait for an ear, nose, and throat appointment can be nearly 700 days, and the wait for an urgent gastroenterology or rheumatology appointment is more than 150 days.
About 250,000 patients in Queensland were waiting for appointments at hospital outpatient clinics, Professor Robson said.
Patients waiting to see a specialist to get them on the official surgery waiting list often develop other health issues during that time, costing the system more.

“The only way we can fix our hospital system is by having total transparency on the number of people who are waiting for care – this means counting people from the time the general practitioner refers them to a specialist,” Professor Robson added.

Patients ending up in emergency care

While the AMA couldn’t nail down just how many patients were on hidden waiting lists, it said thousands of them were becoming so unwell while waiting they ended up in emergency care.
“We’re seeing it in emergency departments every day,” representative Dr Sarah Whitelaw said.
She said this is an issue that needed to be addressed years ago.

“These numbers were incredibly large before COVID. To say that this is just a COVID problem or caused only by the pandemic is simply not true – the waiting lists have been a problem for many years, and the AMA has been calling for many years for these hidden waiting lists to be reported on and released.”

The funding model for public hospitals will be a key focus of the federal government’s October budget.
Speaking on Friday, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the government would continue to work on ways to achieve better health outcomes.
“From my perspective, it’s never been about the dollars but about making sure that we get good health outcomes in the interest of the population,” he said.
But for patients like Mr Gregory, the time has already been lost.
“I really wouldn’t wish it on anyone else and certainly empathise for anyone in the same situation,” he said.
“Family, friends and work colleagues helped me through, and now I’m certainly in a much better frame of mind and looking forward to the future.”

With AAP

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