Page Contents

Last Updated on 24 February 2019

Are Public Hospital Waiting Times Too Long?

Australians benefit from a health care system in which public hospital treatment is available to all for free. This is invaluable for those who cannot afford to buy private health insurance but there is one big downside: the waiting times associated with non-emergency surgery. Here, we look at the typical waiting lists for various procedures in public hospitals.

The Current Situation

Research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare outlined the situation for public hospital waiting times in 2013/14. Key findings included:

  • Almost 700 000 patients were admitted for elective surgery (including emergency surgery) in public hospitals in 2013-14. This was an increase of over 4 per cent compared to 2012-13.
  • When patients are placed on a public hospital waiting list, clinical urgency dictates how quickly they can expect to be seen. This means that the most severe cases should receive treatment more quickly.
  • Half of all patients waited up to 36 days for elective surgery. This varied by state and ranged from an average of 28 days in QLD to 49 days in NSW.
  • Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) surgery, ophthalmology and orthopaedic surgery had waits of 60 to 70 days, on average. Total Knee Replacement surgery had a typical wait of 194 days.
  • Cardio-thoracic and vascular surgery had the shortest average wait. This was typically around 18 to 19 days.
  • Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, the number of patients waiting for over a year for elective surgery decreased slightly but 2.4 per cent of patients could still expect to wait at least this long.
  • The number of patients waiting over a year for treatment varied significantly from 0.7 per cent in WA to 11.5 in TAS.
  • Around 90 per cent of patients were admitted within 262 days. This was a slight decrease compared to before.
  • Indigenous Australians waited for slightly longer than other Australians – 41 days to 36 days. The exception to this was in SA.
  • Almost 22 000 patients were removed from public hospital waiting lists after being treated elsewhere. Over 15 000 patients were removed after transferring to another hospital waiting list.

Public Hospital Waiting List Calculator

This calculator presents information about the length of time waited by patients on public hospital elective surgery waiting lists before being admitted for surgery. Data is sourced from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Admissions The number of people admitted to hospital for in in 2013.
Days waited at 50th percentile The 'median' number of days waited for this procedure to be carried out. In other words, out of 100 people, 50 people will wait more days for this procedure, and 50 people will wait fewer days.
Days waited at 90th percentile 90% of people will have their procedure complete in this number of days or fewer.
Per cent waited more than 365 days The percentage of people waiting over a year for their procedure.

We asked Australian mum bloggers for their views on public hospital waiting times. Here’s what they had to say!

Kids’ health shouldn’t depend on their parents’ bank account. My friend’s 6 year old daughter needed a simple operation to restore her hearing. It was classified as ‘elective surgery’, and she was told they’d have to wait 6-18 months in the public system.

Thanks to financial assistance from a relative, they were able to have the procedure done within just a few weeks in a private hospital.

Her daughter can now join in with her friends chatter at school and hear her teacher’s lessons. No child should have to wait 6-18 months for that.

Aanika at The Active Mum

When it comes to public hospital waiting times for elective surgeries, I believe the situation has improved quite a lot over the last few years. I know that there are definitely still some areas that could improve further which can lead to patients waiting longer than they would like, but it also important to note that sometimes it can be beneficial for patients not rush into elective surgeries. One example of this are children on the ear, nose & throat waiting lists – often children placed on these waiting lists can improve over time and not end up requiring surgery after all.

After spending time living overseas, I am now very appreciative that we have free health care and hospitals in Australia, and that we can receive free and immediate treatment/surgery for urgent illnesses and injuries. Private health insurance can be a great safety net though, and even though I do believe our public health system does a fantastic job, I am incredibly thankful that we are able to have private health insurance for those things that may not be covered in the public system.

Sarah_at_Mummy_and_the_Minx Robyna_at_Mummy_and_the_Minx
Sarah and Robyna at The Mummy and the Minx

Our experience with hospital waiting times is limited as we both hold private health insurance. For both of us, the original reason we signed up for health insurance was to avoid any tax penalties when they came into place a few years ago. Since then we have both had positive experiences with our health insurance providers, and as a result, when we found out that our small people were on the way, we have respectively extended our policies to family cover. Thankfully, our experiences with our providers have continued to be positive.

Fast Lane Dad
Simon at Fast Lane Dad

If I’d got a dollar for every hour I’ve sat in a hospital waiting room (with or without kids), I’d have a LOT more money than I have now!

It’s an interesting situation, especially if you need some form of surgery. Recently,my father-in-law has had to go in for an operation and fortunately, he has private health cover with hospital cover. I say fortunately, because the hospital wait time was therefore significantly reduced. He was able to have his surgery and be back out before he would have been called up had he not had the hospital cover. So I’ve now upgraded our family cover to cover hospital care. It makes sense if you can.

Myself and my family are Medicare users and proud of one of the best healthcare models in place in the world. Yes, the wait times can be lengthy but the care and attention we have received each and every time we have needed to use any form of medical attention, be it a visit to the GP or a stay in hospital, has been impeccable.

If you are in need of emergency care, medically you will be seen at the top of the queue whether you are a public or a private patient. The only true difference being, that as a public patient, I will walk away with no painful out of pocket expenses as compared to the private patient, who is likely to suffer many months of ongoing bills which will continue to trickle in many months following their incident, that on top of their continued monthly premiums to pay!

I prefer to see many Doctors for their varied opinions as compared to the private model where you may choose to see just one or your selected few. I think the variety of opinion has been an incredible learning experience to date and has prevented many needless procedures for our family too.


My daughter had a surgery on her hands and the wait was one year. In our case the wait was welcome, because there was a chance that my daughter’s condition would resolve itself without intervention, so the year gave us an opportunity to make sure that surgery was necessary. I’m not sure how it would work for urgent cases and if they’d be moved up the list.We had the intention of putting her in as a public patient until we showed up on the day of the operation just to find out that as a public patient she’d be operated by someone who was still in training and not a fully qualified surgeon. Apparently, the option was somewhere in the small print on the paperwork we were given. I had seen it and dismissed it, thinking it was there just because it was a standard form and it didn’t apply to us. During numerous previous visits we had seen the same experienced surgeon, we had booked the operation with him and not once (other than the above mentioned paperwork) had anyone mentioned to us that there was a chance he wouldn’t be operating.

I understand that surgeons-to-be need to learn and had this option been discussed with me in advance, I might have reacted differently. My daughter’s surgery was only minor and most likely the person in training would have done a great job. But it was a shock that instead of the doctor that we’d gotten to know, like and trust, I was expected to trust a stranger with my child. Luckily, we had private insurance and we quickly changed our choice. Another parent in the same situation but without insurance, inquired about the cost of the operation if they were to choose the fully qualified surgeon and it was prohibitive, so they had to go with what was available to them.

Our eight-year old daughter, Mercedes, has chronic ear disease, alongside a number of other health problems. We don’t have health cover as we’re a single-income family (I’m unable to work due to the unpredictable nature of Mercedes’ illness) and we can’t afford the premiums.

To date, Mercedes has had close two dozen surgeries, mostly on her ears, and we’ve been lucky that she’s never had to wait for surgery as due to the extent of her illness, she’s considered to be an emergency case.

So when our toddler, Rosalia, needed grommets last year, I just assumed she’d get them fairly quickly. I wasn’t expecting to be told that there was a 9-month waiting list just to be seen at the hospital ENT clinic (when I called in May, I was told to call back in October as there were no appointments until the end of the year and they couldn’t book the following year until October), and that the wait list for the grommet surgery was up to four years for ‘non-urgent’ cases!

Even though a hearing test had shown that Rosalia’s hearing was significantly impacted by glue ear, and her speech was also being affected, she was still not considered an urgent case.

It was an immensely frustrating situation, knowing that the solution to Rosalia’s hearing problems was a simple half-hour surgery, but that it was unlikely to be fixed until she was almost at primary school, and that in the interim she’d inevitably suffer with pain and recurrent ear infections, it just all seemed so counterintuitive.

In the end, my parents offered to pay for Rosalia to have the surgery privately, something we could never have afforded. The surgeon, the same one who treats Mercedes in the public system, gave us a reduced rate, but between his fee, the anaesthetic fee, and the private hospital fee, the total cost was more than $4000, of which we got a little more than $500 back from Medicare.

She had her preoperative appointment in early July, and the surgery in early August . Hhad we not paid to have it done privately, we would still have been waiting to even book an appointment at that stage!

I’m very grateful that Mercedes has received such comprehensive and timely care through the public/Medicare system, but I can’t help but feel that the way that system is set up as an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff solution isn’t really serving the needs of the population as a whole. If we could afford private health cover, we would undoubtedly get it.

Disclaimer: The above information is correct and current at the time of publication.

Disclaimer: The above information is correct and current at the time of publication

Still have questions? Let's talk!

Confused? Not sure if this applies to your situation? Phone us on 1300 643 355 for some free, no obligation advice.

Or want to Compare Health Insurance Policies Now?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Request a callback close

Our experts can provide you with free personal advice. Let us call you.