Australia’s Waiting List for Non-Essential Surgeries ‘Growing and Increasingly Critical’: Experts

By Marina Zhang
Marina Zhang
Marina Zhang
Marina Zhang is a health writer for The Epoch Times, based in New York. She mainly covers stories on COVID-19 and the healthcare system and has a bachelors in biomedicine from The University of Melbourne. Contact her at
January 31, 2022Updated: January 31, 2022

The Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) are urging the government to immediately address the “growing and increasingly critical” backlog of elective surgeries, pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The call comes as the new Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) data shows Australia are waiting longer than ever for elective surgery across a range of categories and conditions.

AMA and RACS released a statement on Feb. 1 stating that whilst the two organisations support the postponement of some elective surgeries to prevent the COVID-19 surge within hospitals, “this approach is increasingly unsustainable.”

“An urgent plan is needed to restore reasonable and acceptable access to elective surgery, as well as a long-term funding arrangement to ensure this backlog is cleared,” the statement read.

Elective surgeries are operations that can be scheduled in advance for non-life-threatening conditions; however, in some cases, they may be for serious diseases such as cancer and can have their quality of life delayed.

Data released on Jan. 25 from the AIHW showed that 50 percent of patients were waiting for 48 days for their surgeries which was a nine-day increase compared to the previous 2019-2020 period, and 8 days more compared to the 2018-2019 period.

Proportion of patients that had to wait over 365 days for their surgeries also increased nationally to 7.6 percent, almost tripling compared to the 2.8 and 2.1 percent for 2019-2020 and 2018-2019 periods respectively.

Omar Khorshid, president of AMA said that the currently highly vaccinated population in Australia means that “blanket suspensions of elective surgery should be only used as a last resort.”

He appointed the suspension of elective surgeries as a “failure of governments to properly invest in public hospital capacity, as well as a failure to undertake the necessary planning needed to avoid this outcome.”

“Elective surgery is not an optional procedure that a patient or doctor elects to have—it is essential surgery. It is surgery to address often life-threatening conditions and conditions that prevent patients from living a normal life because of severe pain or dysfunction,” RACS President Sally Langley said.

“For many patients waiting in line in pain to have a critical operation, the delays in surgery can be devastating. Further, the lack of screening procedures has resulted in patients presenting with more advanced cancers, and in some cases, it has dramatically altered their prognosis,” she said.

Both AMA and RACS are calling for an urgent plan immediately for the resumption of elective surgery as a priority in both private and public hospitals.

AMA and RACS reasoned that there was unused capacity in private hospitals and these facilities should be brought back online for routine elective surgery as soon as possible.

The AIHW spokesperson, Adrian Webster said that the suspension of non-urgent elective surgery in March 2020 as an intervention to manage the COVID-19 pandemic has “reduced the number of elective surgeries performed in the 2019–20 reporting period and contributed to creating a ‘backlog’ of surgeries that had been delayed.”

Admissions to public hospitals for elective surgeries went down to 688,000 in the 2019-2020 period and has recovered to 754,600 in 2020-2021, but it is still lower than pre-pandemic admissions of 758,000 in 2018-2019, with the waiting list increasing due to elective surgeries being pushed back in early 2020.

Khorshid called for a plan funded by the state and the federal governments to clear the accumulation on the waiting list and to “properly” support the public hospitals.

“Australia needs immediate action and an enduring solution to elective surgery waiting lists—otherwise, our hospitals and our patients will only continue to deteriorate.”