This article was written by Sarah Brookes for for WA Today. Published August 4, 2022. To access the original article, click here.
Elective surgery wait times have skyrocketed in Western Australia, with thousands of people waiting longer than is deemed clinically appropriate, and many waiting more than a year.
The elective surgery report for the end of June shows 33,000 people were waiting for surgery at public hospitals, with 7000 waiting longer than the maximum recommended time for their surgery.
The WA Department of Health has an ambitious target of zero per cent of cases waiting longer than recommended.
But in June more than 1000 children were waiting too long for their surgery at Perth Children’s Hospital. At the same time last year there were 700 cases waiting more than the maximum recommended time.
The worst bottleneck at the children’s hospital is for ear, nose and throat surgery, with a median wait time of 369 days. It’s a similar story for patients of all ages needing ENT surgery at Fiona Stanley Hospital (200 days), Joondalup Health Campus (207 days), St John of God Midland Public Hospital (235 days) and Peel Health Campus (237 days).
There are also lengthy delays at metropolitan public hospitals for gynaecology surgery, neurosurgery, plastic surgery, urology, ophthalmology and vascular surgery.
General surgery times have blown out at Fiona Stanley Hospital (with a media wait of 297 days), SJOG Midland (253 days) and Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital (251 days).
Orthopaedic surgeries are also facing long delays at Fiona Stanley Hospital with a median wait of 255 days, Royal Perth Hospital (253 days), SCGH (246 days), SJOG Midland (249 days) and Joondalup Health Campus (235 days).
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said the WA Health Department was working to reduce elective surgery waitlists following a short pause on bookings during the peak of the COVID pandemic.
“WA hospitals continue to experience staff furlough and hospitalisations due to COVID-19,” she said.
“However, each of the health service providers is looking at ways they can safely reduce elective surgery waitlists.
“This includes scheduling some surgeries on the weekend and utilising the capacity of the private system.”
But Australian Medical Association (WA) president Dr Mark Duncan-Smith said using private hospitals was impractical given they were already struggling under their own load.
“These figures on record ramping, maternal bypasses and record wait lists for elective surgery is a result of the McGowan government running our medical system into the ground since they took power in 2017,” he said.
“These problems cannot be blamed on the pandemic, all COVID has done is shone a light on the poor planning and lack of investment in the health system with the operational budget flat lining for years.
How elective surgery patients are prioritised
Patients requiring elective surgery are assigned an urgency category by their treating surgeon and placed on an elective surgery waiting list.
Waiting lists are actively managed by hospitals to ensure all patients are treated within the maximum recommended timeframe for their urgency category:
Category 1 – procedures that should be undertaken within 30 days.
Category 2 – procedures that should be undertaken within 90 days.
Category 3 – procedures that should be undertaken within 365 days
“The state government had complete control when we had 15,000 people waiting for elective surgery five years ago.
“Now it is 30,000 people, enough to fill half of Optus Stadium.”
Duncan-Smith said he had been lobbying the state government to report on the ‘hidden wait list’ – the time it takes to see a specialist even before being put on the wait list for surgery.
The WA Health Department suspended reporting on referrals to public outpatient surgical clinics – the time it takes to see a specialist before going on the surgery waitlist if deemed necessary – while it undertook work to “improve the quality, consistency and accuracy of outpatient data”.
Royal Australian College of General Practitioners WA Chair Dr Ramya Raman said people were waiting longer to see a specialist following a GP referral, putting pressure on patients and doctors to manage their conditions.
“In the past two years wait times have increased significantly and it’s now around a 12 to 18 month wait for patients to see a specialist,” she said.
“Ultimately it means we are managing their conditions as best we can in general practice to tide them over until they can be seen in hospital.”
Dr Raman said the long waits took a toll on patients and their overall health.
Sanderson said WA was facing workforce pressures in the context of the global shortages and the pandemic and they were trying to recruit from overseas and upskilling the WA workforce.
Opposition health spokeswoman Libby Mettam said the statistics laid bare the struggles of WA’s overburdened hospital system.
She said the elective surgery waitlist had blown out by more than 70 per cent since Labor came to office.
“To see such significant wait times for surgery is deeply concerning given the implications of delaying treatment such as ear, nose and throat surgery which now has a median wait time of about a year at Perth Children’s Hospital,” she said.
“While the Labor Government continues to hide behind COVID, the reality is these wait times have been building since they came to office.”