Last Updated on 19 February 2021

Are Public Hospital Waiting Times Too Long in Australia?

Fortunately, all Australians have access to public health care under the Medicare system. With this system, citizens and qualifying residents are able to receive medical services regardless of their income and health situation.

The Medicare system has many advantages and due its strengths and many successes, Australia is often ranked as one of the healthiest counties in the world.

Through the public health care system, Australia has historically boasted a high physician to citizen population and generous health spending per capita.

Key Points
  • While Medicare provides an array of benefits for Australians, lengthy wait times are one of its biggest drawbacks, and they are not getting better.
  • Wait times for emergency departments did not meet National Health Agreement standards for admittance or release times.
  • Elective surgery waits averaged about 38 days across all procedures. However, some patients experienced wait times of over a year.
  • Patients are added to the wait list after they have seen a specialist. However, the wait time between seeing a general practitioner and seeing a specialist for assessment is not calculated – making actual elective surgery wait times longer than is documented.

Though Medicare has many benefits, it has at least one major drawback: wait times.

It’s no secret that the wait and treatment times in public hospitals under Medicare can be long and inconvenient – sometimes leading to periods of prolonged pain and discomfort. Unfortunately, waiting times have increased over the past decade and some experts believe that they will continue to rise.

Wait Time Overview

According to the 2018 Australian Medical Association’s Public Hospital report, public hospital capacity – specifically hospital bed availability – is not keeping pace with population growth and aging. With that, hospitals are demonstrating a lack of ability to match the demand for hospital services.

Increased wait times are an inevitable byproduct of the growing lack of capacity and increased pressures in public hospitals.

While many people only consider the strain on elective surgery wait times, public hospital emergency departments are also affected by increased waits.

Emergency Waits

From 2016-2017, only 66%, or roughly 1/3, of urgent emergency department patients were seen within 30 minutes, as is recommended. This number demonstrates a steady decrease in efficiency over the four previous years.

Additionally, patients who were admitted to the emergency department were experiencing longer wait times before being discharged. According to the National Health Agreement, emergency departments across Australia should discharge patients within 4 hours of admittance.

Unfortunately, the percentage of people who had their emergency department visits completed within four hours fell to 72%, a number that lags far behind the 90% target.

To add insult to injury, the patients who were least likely to be treated and released within the four-hour guidelines were often the sickest.

Percentage of Patients Who Left the Emergency Room Within 4-Hours

  • 57% of resuscitation patients
  • 58% of emergency patients
  • 64% of urgent patients
Elective Surgery Waits

Many people are familiar with the long wait times associated with elective surgeries under Medicare, but are not aware of the extent of the waits and procedures that are affected.

An elective surgery is any procedure that is not done under emergency conditions. In other words, they are no considered urgent or life threatening. Elective surgeries may be considered medically necessary, but can be delayed for at least 24 hours. Because these procedures are not life threatening, they are subject to wait times and scheduling restraints.

Over the past several years, wait times for elective surgeries have continued to trend higher, with 2016-2017 yielding the longest wait times in at least 16 years. Average wait times from 2016-2017 for all elective surgeries hovered around 38 days.

In worst case scenarios, about 1.7% of patients had to wait more than a year to receive their elective surgery.

Common Elective Surgery Wait Times
Some of the more common elective surgery wait times include:

  • Tonsil removal – 97 days
  • Coronary bypass surgery – 13 days
  • Hip replacement surgery – 110 days
  • Knee replacement surgery – 195 days

Data from 2016-2017

Dental Wait Times

In addition to extended wait times for traditional medical services, Medicare patients can also experience long waits for dental treatments.

The wait for dental treatment covered by Medicare can be more than two years in some rural areas.

Hidden Wait Times

While some data regarding wait times for Medicare patients is tracked and analysed, there is still a gap in the data that is available.

The time that a patient waits between being referred from his or her general practitioner to actually seeing a specialist for assessments is not counted. Patients are only added to the official waitlist after they have seen a specialist.

Therefore, the available data for Medicare wait times often underestimates the actual wait times that patients face. Sometimes, people wait longer for specialist assessments than they do for their actual surgery.

Wait Time Calculator

Ultimately, determining whether wait times are too long depends on the individual patient and his or her specific circumstances. Some people are in a position to wait for several weeks or months for care, while others are facing pain, employment, or family pressures that make waiting unbearable.

In order for Medicare patients to determine if wait times are too long, they should investigate the estimated wait times for their specific condition and region. The calculator below is designed to provide information on estimated wait times for patients using Medicare for an elective surgery.

This calculator does not include wait times to see a specialist for assessment. For more clarification on the hidden wait times associated with elective surgeries, patients should contact their primary care doctors.

The data in this calculator is sourced from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Public Hospital Waiting List Calculator

Our Public Hospital Waiting List Calculator gives you an idea of how long you'll need to wait to have a procedure done through the public healthcare system. Data is sourced from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Admissions The number of people admitted to hospital for Cystoscopy in QLD in 2013. 4855
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. 23
Days waited at 90th percentile 90% of people will have their procedure complete in this number of days or fewer. 98
Per cent waited more than 365 days The percentage of people waiting over a year for their procedure. 0.9

Those who are concerned about wait times associated with Medicare treatments should consider supplemental insurance options through private health insurers to find the best balance for themselves and their families.


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