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More waiting longer for elective surgery

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Elective surgery waiting times are growing despite a substantial increase in admissions as pressure on the nation’s public hospital system builds.

Figures compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that the length of time 90 per cent of patients have to wait for elective surgery has blown out in the past five years, from 219 days in 2008-09 to 265 days in 2012-13.

While the report showed that the proportion of patients forced to wait more than a year for treatment has remained steady at around 3 per cent, many still face long delays despite a breakthrough national deal 18 months ago to cut elective surgery waiting lists.

Those waiting for knee replacements and operations to repair broken noses have faced the longest delays, with a median waiting time of around 196 days in 2012-13.

Overall, ophthalmology (76 days), ear, nose and throat surgery (68 days) and orthopaedic surgery (65 days) were the surgical specialties with the longest median waiting times, while cardio-thoracic surgery had the shortest – 17 days in 2012-13.

This meant that those awaiting coronary artery bypass graft procedures faced the shortest median waiting time of any elective surgery patient last financial year, just 16 days.

While many elective surgery patients continue to face lengthy delays in receiving treatment, the AIHW report showed there had been considerable growth in admissions for elective surgery in 2012-13, which were up 1.8 per cent from the previous financial year.

All up, 673,000 elective surgery patients were admitted during the 12 months to June this year – around 25 per cent for general surgery and about 15 per cent for orthopaedic procedures.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said it was too early to tell if the deal brokered by governments in late 2011 – the National Partnership Agreement on Improving Public Hospital Services – was working.

Under the deal, incentive payments worth up to $800 million were on offer to State and Territory governments who achieved improvements in cutting elective surgery waiting times.

So far, of the various jurisdictions, only the Australian Capital Territory has achieved significant reduction in waiting times.

According to AIHW figures, while admissions have increased in four jurisdictions – NSW, Western Australia, the ACT and the Northern Territory, only the ACT has seen a marked decline in elective surgery waiting times, with the median dropping from 74 to 51 days between 2008-09 and 2012-13.

During the same period, NSW saw a climb in median waiting times, from 39 to 50 days.

According to the AIHW, median waiting time sin most other states and territories were “fairly stable”.

Dr Hambleton said it was too soon to judge whether or not the 2011 deal had been a success.

“Hospitals are under pressure, they’re doing the best they can,” the AMA President told ABC radio. “Patients are still going to be waiting for about the same length of time, some a little shorter, some a little longer.”

Dr Hambleton said that one aspect of the issue not covered by the Institute’s report was the likelihood of any diminution in the blame game and bickering between the states and the Commonwealth over health funding and hospital performance.

Adrian Rollins