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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What you need to know:

  • Public waiting lists for elective surgery are longer than private waiting lists.
  • The average public hospital waiting time was 39 days during 2019-2020.
  • Median times are the longest in NSW, and the shortest in the Northern Territory.

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:

StateMedian elective surgery wait times (2019-2020)
Public hospital waiting lists in ACT48 days
Public hospital waiting lists in NSW53 days
Public hospital waiting lists in NT26 days
Public hospital waiting lists in QLD40 days
Public hospital waiting lists in SA43 days
Public hospital waiting lists in TAS55 days
Public hospital waiting lists in VIC27 days
Public hospital waiting lists in WA36 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:

Nose

Septoplasty

Surgery to correct a damaged nose bone: 277 days

Knee

Total Knee replacement

Replacement of weight-bearing surfaces of the knee: 223 days

Ear

Myringoplasty

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:

State2015-162016-172017-182018-192019-20
Cataract extraction92 days85 days87 days84 days98 days
Cholecystectomy42 days41 days45 days45 days48 days
Coronary artery bypass graft13 days13 days17 days17 days18 days
Cystoscopy24 days24 days24 days24 days23 days
Haemorrhoidectomy54 days49 days48 days49 days57 days
Hysterectomy52 days55 days57 days61 days63 days
Inguinal herniorrhaphy52 days52 days56 days59 days67 days
Myringoplasty172 days170 days195 days200 days214 days
Myringotomy57 days56 days66 days62 days65 days
Prostatectomy41 days41 days46 days44 days44 days
Septoplasty215 days209 days248 days241 days277 days
Tonsillectomy123 days97 days121 days125 days130 days
Total hip replacement114 days110 days119 days119 days120 days
Total knee replacement188 days195 days198 days209 days223 days
Varicose vein treatment106 days89.5 days101 days108 days129 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.

Name Product Hospital treatments Extras included Hide More Info Button Hide CompareBox Price Per Month Apply
HCF My Future Basic Plus
    • 14 hospital services
    • Ear, nose and throat
    • Joint reconstructions
    • Dental surgery
    • $600 Combined extras limit
    • Physiotherapy
    • Chiropractic
$94.45
Get discounts on gift cards from Myer, Woolworths, Rebel & more.
Frank Freedom Saver Flexi-Bundle (Basic+)
    • 9 hospital services
    • Plus theatre surgery costs and shared or private room
    • Emergency ambulance
    • $700 combined extras limit
    • Plus 100% back on $150 Optical
$100.05
HBF Bronze Hospital Plus + Flex 50
    • 28 hospital services
    • Ear, nose and throat
    • Joint reconstructions
    • Dental surgery
    • $800 Combined extras limit
    • Physiotherapy
    • Chiropractic
$111.77
Join HBF by 30 June 2021 on eligible Hospital and Extras cover and get 6 weeks free after 6 months. T&Cs apply.
ahm lite flexi bronze plus
    • 24 hospital services
    • Ear, nose and throat
    • Joint reconstructions
    • Dental surgery
    • $800 Combined Routine dental
    • Physiotherapy
    • Chiropractic
$130.60
Get 6 weeks free. PLUS any 2 & 6 month waits on extras waived.
Medibank Bronze Everyday + Top Extras
    • 19 hospital services
    • Bone, joint and muscle
    • Eye (not cataracts)
    • Hernia and appendix
    • Ambulance services
    • $800 General dental
    • $200 Optical
$141.05
Get 6 weeks free + Waive 2 & 6 months waiting periods.
Peoplecare Bronze Hospital  & Mid Extras
    • 24 hospital services
    • Eye (not cataracts)
    • Pain management
    • Bone, joint & muscle
    • $200 Optical
    • $300 Pharmacy
    • Ambulance
$144
Finder Exclusive: Get 6 weeks free + Waive 2 & 6 months waiting periods.
Qantas Silver Hospital + Lifestyle Extras
    • 32 hospital services
    • Emergency ambulance cover
    • Dental surgery
    • Palliative care
    • $600 General dental
    • $350 Physiotherapy
    • $300 Chiro & Osteo
$166.05
Earn up to 110,000 points + Skip the waits for 2 & 6 month waiting periods.
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Compare up to 4 providers

*Quotes are based on single individual with less than $90,000 income paying $500 excess and living in Sydney.

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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2 Responses

    Default Gravatar
    joDecember 12, 2017

    I was told by my Doctor to go on the waiting list for knee reconstruction surgery.

      Avatarfinder Customer Care
      RenchDecember 19, 2017Staff

      Hi Jo,

      Thanks for your inquiry.

      If you are going to a hospital for elective surgery, some procedures tend to have considerably longer waiting periods than others and you may wish to make plans to have the surgery at a private hospital or to cover the surgery with a private health fund rather than going in as a public patient.

      You may check our guide and list of health insurances for joint replacement. All hospital policies apply a two-month waiting period to joint replacement and reconstruction claims unless treatment is due to a pre-existing condition, in which case the waiting period is 12 months. You can use our comparison table to help you find the insurer that suits you.

      When you are ready, you may then click on the “Go to site” button and you will be redirected to the insurer’s website where you can request a quotation or get in touch with their representatives for further inquiries you may have. Please ensure you review the relevant Product Disclosure Statements/Terms and Conditions before purchasing.

      Hope this helps.

      Best regards,
      Rench

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