Elective surgery waiting times have blown out across WA — despite the State’s largely COVID free status — with one in 20 patients now forced to wait longer than a year for their operation.
The biggest bottleneck and longest delays are for ear, nose throat, head and neck surgeries, with one-quarter of patients requiring those procedures forced to wait more than a year.
The average waiting time – or “days waited at the 50th percentile” – for those surgeries doubled to 167 days.
There were also big increases to average waiting times for general surgery (up 57 per cent to 44 days), gynaecology surgery (up 52 per cent to 50 days), ophthalmology (up 45 per cent to 68 days), orthopaedic (up 47 per cent to 85 days) and paediatric surgery (up 52 per cent to 70 days).
The figures, compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and released on Tuesday, lay bare the struggles of WA’s overburdened hospital system.
The AIHW report, which covers the 2020-21 financial year, found that after a period of elective surgery cancellation in the previous year during the early days of the pandemic, the total number of WA admissions jumped 12.1 per cent to 92,410.
That coincided with the overall average wait time – or “days waited at the 50th percentile” – spiking from 36 days to 46 days.
The proportion of patients on the waiting list for more than 365 days doubled from 2.6 per cent to 5.2 per cent.
By contrast in 2016-17, the year the McGowan Government first won office, the average wait time was 34 days and the proportion made to wait longer than a year was just 1.5 per cent.
Opposition health spokeswoman Libby Mettam said WA’s elective surgery waitlist had ballooned by 50 per cent to around 30,000 since Premier Mark McGowan was elected in 2017.
Our hospitals have been preparing for a long time and this work is continuing.
“The McGowan Government have dragged their feet on recruiting health workers and the Health Minister’s urgent eleventh-hour efforts to desperately recruit for our under-resourced health system should have happened two years ago,” Ms Mettam said.
“Many of the procedures that have been cancelled are delaying essential treatment for patients, many of whom are in pain, with deteriorating conditions and who cannot work or enjoy a normal life.
“The health of thousands of West Australians waiting for surgery continues to be ignored and treated as non-essential by the McGowan Government.”
Worryingly, the time period examined in the report does not capture the impact of widespread cancellations of thousands of non-urgent elective procedures across WA hospitals that began in August.
Those cancellations — blamed on staff sickness and overflowing emergency departments — came despite WA’s almost completely COVID free status up until mid-December.
A WA Health spokeswoman said “the majority of patients on the elective surgery waitlist” had been seen within the “clinically recommended time” in December 2021.
The spokeswoman did not address a question about the particularly long waiting times for ear, nose, throat, head and neck surgeries.
“In regards to future impact on elective surgeries, WA Health continues to monitor COVID-19 case numbers in the State and plan for impacts on the hospital system,’ she said.
“When COVID-19 cases peak, WA Health proposes to reduce elective surgeries to perform only essential Category 1 and 2 cases. This is primarily to assist health service providers with managing (the) need for staff.
“WA Health has a COVID-19 outbreak surge plan, which is reviewed and updated throughout the pandemic to reflect the evolving situation.
“In addition, Western Australian public hospitals have their own specific plans in place to manage COVID-positive cases in the event of an outbreak. Our hospitals have been preparing for a long time and this work is continuing.”