Public hospital wait times under even more pressure

According to data released today by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW), public hospital waiting times for emergency department treatment and elective surgery are getting even worse – particularity for those without health insurance.

The country’s median wait time for elective surgery escalated to 40 days in 2017-18, up from 38 days in 2016-17 and 35 days in 2014-15. This comes amid rapidly escalating federal government funding for the public hospital sector.

“The official data shows that public hospitals are struggling to keep up with demand, despite ever-escalating annual cash injections by the Federal Government,” said Members Health CEO Matthew Koce.

The worst results were seen in NSW and the ACT.  NSW had an average wait time of 55 days in 2017-18. While the ACT’s wait time was 54 days.

“It is important to note that the ‘median’ only represents the lower 50 per cent of patients on waiting lists. This means the other 50 per cent, or hundreds of thousands of people are waiting much longer,” said Mr Koce.

Meanwhile, Commonwealth funding to states and territories for public hospitals in on track to increase from $18.5 billion in 2017-18 to almost $23 billion in 2020-21, representing a massive increase of about 7 per cent per annum. In contrast, private health insurance premiums went up by just 3.95 per cent in 2018.

It has become all too common for emergency patients to wait in public hospital car-park ambulance queues for many hours before getting treatment. Others, needing elective surgery, are having to wait many months just for their first consultation with a specialist and then many more months for treatment.

Most concerning is the fact that the AIHW data does not take into account that there are effectively two waiting lists for elective surgery. The first is the period from the time of referral by a GP to the initial consultation with a specialist to get onto the ‘official waiting list’. The second is the time spent on the ‘official waiting list’ for treatment. The Government only reports on the much shorter wait between seeing a specialist and getting treatment – not the entire patient journey from beginning to end, which can extend to well over a year.

Consumers are not able to get a complete picture of public hospital wait times and are therefore being kept in the dark. Consumers deserve to have access to information about the entire length of time it takes to complete the patient journey from beginning to end so they can get an accurate understanding of just how much faster they will receive treatment in the private health system and are unable to make fully informed choices about their healthcare options.

“Delays in treatment can result in disastrous consequences for patients and their families. Aside from the obvious long term health effects, it can result in lost income through time off work, going through months of pain and suffering and missing out on quality time with loved ones.”

“And in a climate of rising cost of living pressures, few Australian families can afford to sit on a hospital waiting list for days, months or years.”

In 2017–18, the longest median wait in the public system was for Septoplasty [surgery for a deviated nasal septum] at 248 days. Across all treatment segments, head and neck surgery saw the largest increase in wait times, from 70 days in 2016-17 to 83 days in 2017-18.

The AIHW data further reinforces the value of the private health system, which guarantees fast access to high quality care, when it is needed and takes pressure of the public system and the taxpayer’s purse.

AIHW data shows two thirds of all elective procedures are performed in private hospitals, meaning even a marginal decline in the number of people with private health insurance could have overwhelming consequences for the country’s already overstretched public system.

Members Health is the peak industry body for 25 health insurers which are not-for-profit, member-owned and community based. In all, the Members Health funds provide private health insurance to over 2 million Australians.

Media Contact:
Eddie Morton
Media and Policy Manager
(03) 9896 9372