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Elective surgeries cancelled during coronavirus: What it means for you


If you're one of the thousands of Australians currently awaiting elective surgery, your procedure may have been postponed due to COVID-19 and it's understandable if you're worried about when it will finally go ahead.

Thankfully, on 21 April, the government announced plans to reintroduce elective surgeries, on a gradual basis. Here, we'll talk you through which elective surgeries are still on hiatus, and help you find out if your surgery will go ahead.

How have elective surgeries been impacted by coronavirus?

On 25 March, the government announced that all non-urgent surgeries would be postponed to help hospitals focus on treating COVID-19 patients and free up medical staff and supplies.

The suspension applied to both public and private health systems, with only category 1 and some exceptional category 2 surgeries allowed to continue.

A month later, the government lifted some of the restrictions, allowing for all category 1 and category 2 surgeries to go ahead, as well as IVF treatment and some important category 3 surgeries.

Finally, on 15 May, the federal government gave the green light for all elective surgeries to go ahead. However, PM Scott Morrison also said that the speed at which elective surgeries were back up and running would be down to individual states.

What are the current restrictions for elective surgeries?

Currently, there are no restrictions on elective surgeries. The federal government has given permission for all surgeries to go ahead. However, different states may be quicker or slower to fully reinstate elective procedures.

What are the categories of elective surgery?

Every patient waiting for elective surgery falls into one of three categories. These categories give an indication of how important the surgery is, the condition the patient is in and how quickly the procedure should happen.

CategoryAllowed to go ahead?Treatment timeDefinition
1YesWithin 30 daysHas the potential to deteriorate quickly to the point where the patient's situation may become an emergency
2Yes, from 27 AprilWithin 90 daysTheir condition causes pain, dysfunction or disability. Unlikely to deteriorate quickly and unlikely to become an emergency
3Yes, from 15 MayWithin 365 daysTheir condition causes pain, dysfunction or disability. Unlikely to deteriorate quickly.

Which category is my surgery?

The category of your surgery is largely decided by industry guidelines, as well as your attending medical professional. Your clinical need, overall level of health and the procedure being performed will all be factored into the decision.

That means you could be having the same surgery as someone else, but you could fall into a different category to them.

However, the National Elective Surgery Categorisation Guideline lists common procedures and the category they typically fall under. You can search for your surgery in the document to see which category it is likely to be.

The table below lists some examples of common surgeries and their typical category.

  • Breast lump excision or biopsy
  • Mastectomy
  • Neonatal surgery
  • Amputation of a limb
  • Laryngectomy
  • Prostate biopsy
  • Removal of urinary tract stones
  • Dialysis access surgery
  • Nerve decompression
  • Eye examinations under anaesthesia
  • Craniotomy for unruptured aneurysm
  • Nerve decompression of spinal cord
  • Coronary artery bypass grafting
  • Heart valve replacement
  • Total hip or knee replacement
  • Breast reconstruction or reduction
  • Tonsil removal
  • Varicose veins treatment
  • Cleft lip and palate repair
  • Cranioplasty
  • Rhinoplasty

If you're unsure which category your surgery falls into, you should contact your doctor immediately. They will be able to confirm whether your procedure has been postponed or if it is likely to go ahead as scheduled.

How has this impacted surgery waiting times?

Unfortunately, it's likely you'll be waiting longer for your surgery than you had initially expected. That's because, even when the restrictions were partially lifted on 27 April, just 25% of elective surgeries in public and private hospitals were reopened.

According to 2018/2019 data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, half of all elective surgery patients had to wait at least 41 days between joining the waiting list and being admitted. That's up from 40 days the previous year and 35 days in 2014–15.

The backlog is going to become even bigger as a result of COVID-19. If you want to skip the queue, it might be time to consider private health insurance.

How will I know if my surgery has been cancelled or rescheduled?

You should be contacted by your doctor or health professional. If you have surgery scheduled soon and you have not been contacted yet, you should contact your doctor as soon as possible.

If you had a surgery postponed, and are wondering when it will be rearranged, you should reach out to your doctor or hospital. However, the government has stressed that resumption of elective surgery will be gradual. It's expected to take some time to clear the backlog of patients.

How has this impacted my private health insurance for elective surgeries?

Elective surgery cancellations affected both public and private health care. This meant anyone with private health insurance was in the same boat as those using the public system.

However, now that elective surgeries are being reintroduced, your private health insurance policy should cover you for elective surgery costs in a private hospital.

Private healthcare tends to have significantly shorter waiting times compared to Medicare, so it's likely your surgery will go ahead relatively quickly - as long as it is not subject to the ban. However, be aware that there may still be some backlog.

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