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Standing by for surgery: 3 million uninsured Australians have languished on hospital waitlists

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Millions of Australians are suffering due to elective surgery waitlists, according to new research by Finder.

A Finder survey of 1,059 respondents revealed 1 in 5 (20%) Aussies – equivalent to more than 4 million people – have had to wait for an operation as they didn't have private health insurance.

Of those who weren't able to have their surgery straight away, 81% – equivalent to more than 3 million people – waited longer than 3 months, while 65% waited more than 6 months for their surgery.

A staggering 35% of Australians without private health insurance have waited a year or more for surgery, with 18% on the waitlist for more than 2 years.

Elective surgery is considered medically necessary, and may be required urgently, but is not conducted as a result of an emergency presentation.

Tim Bennett, health insurance expert at Finder, said long waits for surgery can add a lot of additional stress for patients.

"Many are left waiting longer than expected for treatment and some then face the additional burden of prolonged reliance on medication to cope with the delay.

"The consequences of being uninsured need to be weighed up as the stakes are high."

In 2021–22, 623,000 patients were admitted for surgery from public hospital elective surgery waiting lists – a 17% decrease compared with 2020–21, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

General surgery was the most common surgical speciality (21%), followed by urological surgery (16%).

Bennett urged those waiting for surgery to monitor their condition regularly with their general practitioner.

"For certain ailments – serving the waiting period of private health cover is quicker than staying in the public queue.

"The added expense of a monthly premium is worth it for some, especially if it means halting further damage to the body for things like knee and hip replacements.

"Private cover also allows you to pick your hospital or doctor and can help you save on tax if you make more than $93,000."

The cost of private health insurance varies, but Finder analysis shows a bronze hospital-only policy will cost $100 a month on average for a 30-year-old Sydneysider earning less than $93,000.

Have you ever had to wait for surgery due to not having private health cover?
Yes20%
No80%
Source: Finder survey of 1,059 respondents, March 2023
If yes, how long was the wait?
Less than 3 months19%
3–6 months16%
6–9 months11%
9–12 months19%
1–2 years17%
2–3 years11%
3+ years7%
Source: Finder survey of 214 respondents who responded "yes" to waiting for surgery due to not having private health cover

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