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Surgery queues grow as hospitals feel the pinch

Some patients are waiting close to a year for treatment amid a nationwide rise in elective surgery waiting times and persistent emergency department delays that highlight shortfalls in public hospital funding, according to the AMA. Figures released by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) show the national average waiting time for public hospital elective surgery grew from 34 to 36 days in the three years to 2010-11, with some patients in New South Wales waiting as long as 333 days for treatment.

17 Jun 2012

Some patients are waiting close to a year for treatment amid a nationwide rise in elective surgery waiting times and persistent emergency department delays that highlight shortfalls in public hospital funding, according to the AMA.

Figures released by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) show the national average waiting time for public hospital elective surgery grew from 34 to 36 days in the three years to 2010-11, with some patients in New South Wales waiting as long as 333 days for treatment.

AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said the increases, which came despite a big injection of Commonwealth funds, demonstrated the acute shortage of public hospital beds.

“Doctors on the ground, working in public hospitals every hour of every day, know that there has been little change to relieve the stress on hospitals and health professionals despite an almost 10 per cent increase in recurrent expenditure,” Dr Hambleton said.

The AMA President made the comments following a meeting with COAG Reform Council chairman Paul McClintock last week to discuss the outcome of the Council’s annual report on the National Healthcare Agreement.

Not only did the report identify an increase in national elective surgery waiting times – driven by a massive blowout in the average waiting time for treatment in NSW from 39 to 47 days between 2007-08 and 2010-11 – but found there had been no improvement in how long it took for emergency department patients to receive treatment.

The report showed that 68 per cent of patients were seen by emergency department medical staff within the time stipulated in national benchmarks in 2010-11, virtually unchanged since 2007-08, when the proportion was 67 per cent.

Mr McClintock said the results called into question the effectiveness of national partnership agreements in achieving improvements in the delivery of health services.

“Nationally, we have not seen a consistent improvement in either elective surgery or emergency waiting times,” Mr McClintock told The Australian Financial Review. “You are entitled to ask whether the money being spent through the national partnerships really delivering long-term improvements.”

A spokesman for Health Minister Tanya Plibersek told The Australian the increase in elective surgery waiting times reflected the effects of the Federal Government’s blitz on elective surgery waiting lists, which had deliberately targeted patients who had waited the longest for surgery, thereby pushing up the median waiting time.

But Dr Hambleton said the figures showed hospitals were struggling to cope with growing demand for health services.

He said that although there were an extra 872 beds opened in public hospitals in 2010-11, the number of beds per 1000 people had not changed.

“This means the new beds merely kept pace with the population and did nothing to increase the capacity of hospitals,” the AMA President said.

Dr Hambleton said the pressure on waiting lists was even worse than that indicated by the COAG figures, because they did not take into account patients who were yet to be assessed for surgery by a public hospital specialist following referral from their GP.

He said patients were only counted towards waiting lists once they had seen a specialist and were booked in for surgery.

Dr Hambleton said official figures should take account of this hidden waiting list, and called on the COAG Reform Council to also adopt the AMA’s Bedwatch proposal for a nationwide stocktake of the actual numbers of beds needed in each hospital to provide safe care.

Bedwatch would track existing beds, new beds and bed occupancy rates to ensure that public hospitals meet the AMA’s preferred level of 85 per cent bed occupancy.”

The Reform Council’s report showed that the proportion of patients complaining they had to wait an unacceptable time to see a GP fell from almost 18 per cent in 2009 to 15.5 per cent in 2010-11, while the proportion who deferred seeing a GP because of cost climbed from 6.4 per cent to 8.7 per cent over the same period.

But the AMA said the results, based on an Australian Bureau of Statistics survey asking patients about their experience, needed to be treated with caution.

Dr Hambleton said the rise in the proportion who claimed they had not seen a GP because of perceived cost was not consistent with Medicare data showing a record of 81.2 per cent GP services were bulk billed in the first three months of the year.

AR


Published: 17 Jun 2012