NSW Health was faced with a waitlist of 101,026 elective surgery procedures at the end of June after national cabinet ordered a temporary suspension of all non-urgent and some semi-urgent elective surgery in March.
There were 64,668 elective surgeries performed in NSW between July and September, 2581 more than occurred during the same period in 2019. Under a worksharing agreement created in response to the pandemic, 2171 of these procedures occurred in private hospitals.
NSW Health Deputy Secretary Susan Pearce said the backlog was “steadily coming down”.
“Engaging with the private hospitals for our public patients has enabled us to be at at least 110 per cent of our usual performance,” she said, noting she expected yet-to-be released figures for the December quarter would show the state was continuing to reduce waiting times.
Median waiting times for non-urgent elective surgery increased by 29 days compared to last quarter, to 330 days. The median waiting time was 240 days during the same period in 2019.
More than a third of non-urgent surgeries performed during the quarter occurred beyond the clinically recommended 365-day timeframe for such procedures (34.2 per cent). One in 10 people waited more than 441 days before receiving their non-urgent surgery.
Orthopaedic surgeries were not only running behind, with 27 per cent occurring later than clinically recommended, but also had larger than usual wait lists at the end of September, up 21.3 per cent for knee replacements and 25.6 per cent for hip replacements compared to 2019.
Usually on-schedule eye surgeries were also hit hard. There were 10,298 ophthalmology procedures during July to September, with just 65.9 per cent on time, the same rate as in April to June. During the same quarter in 2019, 98.5 per cent were on time.
Large numbers of people were waiting longer than is clinically recommended for cataract surgery: at the end of September, 1268 people had been on the waitlist for more than the recommended year, compared to just 40 in September 2019.
Ms Pearce said it was expected that, given all non-urgent surgery was suspended during the shutdown, procedures with larger cohorts would experience significant waiting times when the program recommenced in full in July.
“The other really critical part of this is that if a patient … believed their urgency was changing, they were told they would be able to go to their doctor and have a review of that urgency,” she said.
The cataract surgery waitlist returned to about pre-pandemic levels after blowing out to more than 20,000 people in June. Ms Pearce said it was expected that procedures such as cataract surgery, which are completed in a day, would recover more quickly than more complex procedures such as hip replacements.
Royal Australasian College of Surgeons NSW chairwoman Dr Payal Mukherjee said it was reassuring to see NSW increase its number of elective surgeries after the suspension, although long waiting times for procedures such as cataract surgery and hip replacements were frustrating for patients.
“These non-urgent surgeries are of a less life-threatening nature, but they do cause disability in your life,” she said.
Although she believed the state’s surgeons “cannot be working harder”, she hoped the pandemic might present an opportunity for a “reassessment” of the waiting times health systems considered to be normal and to strive for quicker turnarounds.
A total of 95,052 people were on the elective surgery waiting list at the end of September.
The figure is an improvement on the 101,026 patients who were waiting at the end of June but still 10,024 more than were waiting at the same time last year.
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Mary Ward is a health reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.