How long are public hospital waiting times?
Figures show that public hospital waiting times remain stubbornly high for a range of non-urgent treatments.
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If you're seeking non-urgent treatment at a hospital, you'll usually have the option to go through either a public or private hospital. Australia's public health care system is generally world-class, but many people opt for private hospital care to enjoy more flexibility with regards to their treatment. Also, there's a key role that's played by health insurance in helping you make the right call for your needs.
How do surgery waiting lists work for public patients at public hospitals?
Public hospitals are often very busy, so they need to prioritise treatment in order of urgency. Surgery waiting lists are designed to manage in a way that's fair.
You only need to go on to a waiting list for elective surgery. By elective surgery, we're talking about a procedure that isn't an emergency but which has been recommended as medically required by your doctor. Examples of such treatments can be anything from cataract surgery to hip replacements.
If you choose to go through Medicare, you can access free or low-cost hospital care. Your elective surgery can be booked once you've received a specialist medical assessment. After the doctor has confirmed that you need surgery, you'll be placed on a waiting list.
What's the average wait time on a public hospital waiting list?
The average wait time for elective surgery in a public hospital in Australia was 39 days in 2019-20, according to stats from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). This was a small decrease from 41 days the previous year. This followed a five year period between 2014-15 and 2018-19 when the average wait time increased by 2.1% on average per year.
However, this was predominantly due to the cancellation of some non-urgent surgery in March 2020. This was done to ensure the country's health system would have enough capacity to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Understandably, less urgent surgeries come with longer waiting periods.
The type of surgical procedure you need and the availability of services in your area will also impact wait times. Despite these mitigating factors, public waiting times are still painfully high for many across Australia.
How do public hospital waiting lists vary from state to state?
The short answer is a lot. There can be a big difference between, say, Canberra hospital wait times and the average wait time in Darwin. In fact, it could take almost twice as long to get elective surgery in the ACT (48 days) compared to the Northern Territory (26 days), on average.
As the most recent research from the AIHW shows, public hospital waiting lists in New South Wales were more than a fifth longer (53 days) than public hospital waiting lists in Queensland (40).
The figures also showed that public hospital waiting lists in Victoria (27 days) were less than half that of those for Tasmanians (55).
Here's a breakdown of the waiting times for each state in Australia:
|State||Median elective surgery wait times (2019-2020)|
|Public hospital waiting lists in ACT||48 days|
|Public hospital waiting lists in NSW||53 days|
|Public hospital waiting lists in NT||26 days|
|Public hospital waiting lists in QLD||40 days|
|Public hospital waiting lists in SA||43 days|
|Public hospital waiting lists in TAS||55 days|
|Public hospital waiting lists in VIC||27 days|
|Public hospital waiting lists in WA||36 days|
Which treatments have the longest waiting lists?
Of the 25 most common surgeries in Australia during 2019-20, the longest waiting times in public hospitals were for:
Surgery to correct a damaged nose bone: 277 days
Total Knee replacement
Replacement of weight-bearing surfaces of the knee: 223 days
Repairing a hole in the eardrum: 214 days
Here's a breakdown of the longest median waiting times for specific treatments in Australia over the past five years:
|Cataract extraction||92 days||85 days||87 days||84 days||98 days|
|Cholecystectomy||42 days||41 days||45 days||45 days||48 days|
|Coronary artery bypass graft||13 days||13 days||17 days||17 days||18 days|
|Cystoscopy||24 days||24 days||24 days||24 days||23 days|
|Haemorrhoidectomy||54 days||49 days||48 days||49 days||57 days|
|Hysterectomy||52 days||55 days||57 days||61 days||63 days|
|Inguinal herniorrhaphy||52 days||52 days||56 days||59 days||67 days|
|Myringoplasty||172 days||170 days||195 days||200 days||214 days|
|Myringotomy||57 days||56 days||66 days||62 days||65 days|
|Prostatectomy||41 days||41 days||46 days||44 days||44 days|
|Septoplasty||215 days||209 days||248 days||241 days||277 days|
|Tonsillectomy||123 days||97 days||121 days||125 days||130 days|
|Total hip replacement||114 days||110 days||119 days||119 days||120 days|
|Total knee replacement||188 days||195 days||198 days||209 days||223 days|
|Varicose vein treatment||106 days||89.5 days||101 days||108 days||129 days|
Do private hospitals have waiting lists for elective surgeries?
Private hospitals do have waiting lists for elective surgeries, but they are shorter than public waiting lists, on average. Private hospitals also tend to give you more choice about the type of care you receive. This can include choosing the doctor you want and electing a certain type of treatment.
Because waiting times are shorter at private hospitals, you often have more flexibility with when you can go in for surgery as well. You may also be able to get a private room and access to a number of optional extras to make your stay more comfortable.
Can wait times be waived if I'm a public patient?
Wait times can sometimes be waived if you're a public patient, but only if your condition worsens and is considered an emergency. In most cases, the specialist will decide how urgently your procedure is needed and assign you to a specific urgency category. These are:
- Category 1: Surgery recommended within 30 days
- Category 2: Surgery recommended within 90 days
- Category 3: Surgery recommended within 365 days.
You can use My Hospitals to find out how long you will likely have to wait for the surgery you need. If you feel your condition has worsened and you require treatment sooner, contact your specialist as soon as possible and you may be reassigned to a more urgent category.
How can health insurance help me to meet the cost of a private treatment?
Once you've served the waiting periods on your private health policy, your hospital cover should help meet some of the costs of your private hospital stay, such as your surgery and accomodation. It may not cover everything, so be sure to read your policy's Product Disclosure Statement with care.
It can feel tricky to choose which option is best for you, but comparing a range of health funds is a sure-fire way to help ensure you're getting what you need, along with minimising any out-of-pocket costs. With the right private health cover, you could soon be on your way to shorter waiting times for important surgery.
We update our data regularly, but information can change between updates. Confirm details with the provider you're interested in before making a decision.
Are there waiting lists if I'm a private patient in a public hospital?
Yes, you will still need to serve a waiting period as a private patient in a public hospital. That said, if you are being treated as a private patient in a public hospital, it's your private health insurance covering you, not Medicare. As a result, you may not have to wait as long as a public patient would have to.You may also be able to access benefits such as free parking and a private room. It's a good idea to check your insurance policy for any out-of-pocket expense or excess you may need to pay.
Of course, private health insurance generally lets you get treated at a private hospital. , Because public hospitals are generally much busier than private hospitals, this might be a better option if you want to get treated sooner.
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