How Do Hospital Waiting Lists Work?

General Medical

HIF Australia

One of the more confusing terms in healthcare is elective surgery. For some, the utterance of “elective surgery” conjures images of the rich and famous heading to the hospital for the old nip/tuck but in reality, elective surgery refers to any non-emergency procedure. Need a knee reco? Elective surgery. Clogged artery needing a stent? Elective surgery.

What is an elective surgery?

As stated above, an elective surgery is any non-emergency procedure performed in a hospital. While something being “elective” almost connotes a procedure of lesser importance, it just means that the treatment you’re after can wait (at least a little bit). Basically, there are procedures that can’t wait, for example emergency surgeries, and everything else is elective.

What are hospital waiting lists?

Elective surgeries themselves are broken into three categories and in the public system how long you’re waiting for treatment will depend on which category your elective surgery falls into:

  • Category 1 (urgent). These are procedures where the recommended treatment time is within 30 days. An example would be a heart valve replacement.
  • Category 2 (semi-urgent). These are procedures where surgery is recommended within 90 days. One example is a hip replacement.
  • Category 3 (non-urgent). These are procedures where surgery is recommended within 365 days. An example is varicose vein removal.

The majority of Australians who find themselves on a hospital waiting list fall into the second two categories, with category 2 (38.2%) and category 3 (34.3) patients accounting for 72.5% of hospital admissions in 2017-18.

Public hospital waiting periods on the rise

How long you’re going to have to wait on a public waiting list is on the increase, according to the latest data available from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). The median waiting time for elective surgery in 2017-18 was 40 days, which was up from 37 days in 2015-16 and 36 days in 2013-14.

Skipping public waiting lists

One of the major benefits of private health insurance is that you can skip the public waiting lists for elective surgery. How much time this will save you is unknown since data on wait times with private health insurers is not available, but the wait times tend to be shorter.

If you have private hospital insurance, one way to ensure your wait time is shorter than through the public system is to research specialists. Your GP should be able to point you in the right direction and give you a list. Take that list, give the specialists a call and find out when they can squeeze you in. By doing this, you’ll not only be able to check the specialist's availability, you can also ask about the cost of the procedure and what is and isn’t covered by your private health insurance.

If calling isn’t your speed, there is a wealth of online resources that can also help, such as this list put together by the Australian Patients Association:

  • White Coat
  • Seek Medi
  • Mind the Gap
  • Health Share

Once you’ve found a specialist that ticks the boxes for both price and wait time, you can take that name back to your GP to get a referral.

Bottom line

Unless you’re going into hospital for an emergency surgery you’re going to be stuck on some kind of waiting list. If you don’t like the idea of not being seen in a timely fashion then you might want to look into getting hospital cover. Not only can it help you avoid public waiting lists, but depending on your policy you’ll have the option to choose your own specialist and have a private room for your stay.

Richard Laycock is an insurance expert at, with a special interest in health. His mission is to make insurance as easy for people to understand as possible. 


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