‘A depressing picture’: Report shows public hospital wait times increasing

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A new report shows Australia's public hospitals are failing to cope with ever-increasing patient demand and people are waiting longer than ever for treatment. Source: Getty

If it feels like wait times for surgery at public hospitals are getting longer, you’re not imagining things.

The new Public Hospital Report Card released by the Australian Medical Association (AMA) shows that people are waiting longer than ever for care at public hospitals and that they’re failing to cope with ever-increasing patient demand. According to the AMA, the new report “paints a depressing picture of overstretched hospitals and patients waiting longer for their care”.

“Public hospitals are a vital pillar of our world-class health system, but neglect and underfunding are dooming them to failure,” AMA President Dr Tony Bartone said in a statement. “All our governments have to lift their game, but the leadership and the funding priorities and strategies must come from the Federal Government.”

The AMA said public hospitals need clear and transparent long-term funding arrangements, given that emergency times for “urgent” patients have gone backwards in all Australian states and territories since last year’s report.

“The picture for elective surgery is not much better, with most jurisdictions performing worse or remaining static,” Bartone said. “Compared to last year, elective surgery admissions per 1,000 population actually went backwards by 1.5 per cent nationally, and backwards in every jurisdiction bar two. No jurisdiction improved performance across all indicators in our Report Card.”

Figures show that in 2016-17, public hospitals provided more than 6.5 million episodes of admitted public hospital treatment, close to 8 million presentations to accident and emergency departments and approximately 36.7 million non-admitted patient service events, including 16.2 million services in allied health or clinical nurse specialist clinics.

The 2019 report shows that there’s a 24-year low of hospital beds per 1,000 people aged 65 years and older and just 64 per cent of urgent presentations seen within the recommended 30-minute timeframe in 2017-18.

More than a third of patients who presented to an emergency department in need of urgent treatment waited longer than clinically recommended and one in five patients who need elective surgery within 90 days are waiting longer than clinically-recommended in three of Australia’s eight states and territories. It’s a worrying trend given the AMA says Australia’s population gets sicker and older each year.

Between 2012-13 and 2016-17, public hospital separations rose around 4.5 per cent each year, while emergency presentations rose on average by 2.6 per cent annually.

“Underfunding can lead to increased numbers of deaths for admitted patients, higher levels complications, delayed care, delayed pain relief, and longer length of stay for patients. Public hospital capacity is determined by funding,” Bartone said. “We can’t have a hospital system that is stretched so tight that scheduled elective surgery is cancelled because ward beds are needed by seriously ill patients who unexpectedly present in emergency.”

He added that greater funding is required to support highly-skilled, dedicated, and hardworking doctors, nurses, other health professionals and hospital workers who are asked to do more with less daily. Funding would also ensure patients are given access to high-quality care when required, without longer waiting times.

The AMA is now calling on all the major parties to make a meaningful election promise to commit to significant new long-term funding for Australia’s public hospitals.

Do you think wait times at public hospitals are getting worse? Have you had to wait a long time for an urgent surgery or treatment?

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