22 January 2023

Government, Opposition in war of words over outpatient wait times

| Claire Fenwicke
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ambulance near hospital

Documents released under Freedom of Information laws have revealed how long people are waiting for outpatient appointments. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The Liberals have accused the Government of breaking promises over reducing outpatient wait times, with new documents revealing thousands of Canberrans are waiting longer than the clinically recommended time for appointments.

However, the Health Minister has slammed what she has called a “disappointing … lack of understanding” on the part of the Opposition around the wait times, saying outpatient and elective surgery wait times are “not a one-to-one comparison”.

Shadow Health Minister Leanne Castley said a Freedom of Information request for outpatient appointment wait times revealed about 23,065 patients were overdue for their surgery out of a total of 28,472 for certain specialities.

“This means more than 80 per cent of patients are waiting longer than clinically recommended in the ACT,” she said.

“These figures paint a very bleak picture for any Canberran that may need elective surgery in the future as well as the tens of thousands of Canberrans who will have to live in pain and sometimes debilitating conditions until they are admitted.”

The numbers as of March 2022 showed 130 urgent patients waiting an average of 163 days for ear, nose and throat appointments, whereas the clinically recommended time is within 30 days.

There were more than 1300 category 2 patients under the general surgery speciality waiting an average of 575 days for an appointment. The clinically recommended time for semi-urgent appointments is within 90 days.

And while category 3 patients are recommended to be seen within a year, 1250 people under the orthopaedic surgery speciality have been waiting an average of 1085 days.

“Some of these patients have contacted my office and feel forced to pay for private surgeries or move states, because they do not want to live in pain, sometimes for hundreds of days before they receive their surgery,” Ms Castley said.

“It is tragic that Canberrans are forced to take this drastic action because the Barr-Rattenbury Government has failed to address major issues in our public hospitals.”

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However, Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said Ms Castley had confused outpatient appointments with surgery, and said some of the specialities rarely even resulted in needing elective surgery.

“For example, dermatology – it’s a very, very important service, but it’s not necessarily highly correlated with the elective surgery waiting list,” she said.

“Of course we’re concerned people are having to wait longer than the recommended time for their outpatient appointment, but it’s also really critical to recognise, though, that not all of those outpatient appointments – when people do see a specialist – are converted to the elective surgery waiting list.”

She said it was important to put the numbers into “context”, as they covered the period when the Delta and Omicron COVID-19 waves were impacting the Territory.

Ms Stephen-Smith said the system currently provided about 130,000 outpatient appointments each year, and this was a “significant improvement”.

“Over the last three years there’s been a reduction in the wait lists, there used to be about 30,000 people who were ‘long waits’ for outpatient appointments,” she said.

“Now we have 30,000 people in total on the wait list.”

Ms Stephen-Smith said other issues impacting the Capital included referrals from NSW, and a heavier reliance on the public outpatient system due to a lack of private specialists working here.

“Where those private specialists are available, the gap payments are significantly more in the ACT,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“So you see people who’ve even got private health insurance relying on the public system in a way that they wouldn’t do in Sydney or Melbourne, for example.

“We need to work with the private system to ensure that those people who have private health insurance are able to use [it] without that large gap, freeing up some of that public capacity.”

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Canberra Health Services chief operating officer Cathie O’Neill said other strategies being employed to reduce outpatient wait times included more pre-screening work, more Telehealth options for simple follow-up appointments, and encouraging more private practitioners to spend time in public clinics.

“We don’t shy away from that fact [that the times are long], we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” she said.

“For those patients who are waiting, we understand very much that it’s very distressing … we are trying to do the best we can to get as many people seen as possible.”

She said another way to reduce the wait times was for those who had been on the wait list, but had multiple referrals or had already been seen in another jurisdiction, to get in touch.

Ms O’Neill said it varied by speciality, but about 8 per cent of the total outpatient appointments actually weren’t needed anymore.

“If those consumers can let us know, we’ve tried to make it as simple as possible for them to get onto our website or call our central intake, so we can offer those appointments to someone else,” she said.

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ChrisinTurner2:13 pm 23 Jan 23

You can’t divert $billions to the tram without consequences,

I am looking forward to Riot-Act publishing opposition health spokesperson Leanne Castley’s ideas on how her party will tackle hospital waiting times. Not to mention all of the other health challenges facing governments around the country post pandemic. This is a woman who likes to put herself out there, big on criticism but light on policy details. Let’s hope that any of her opinion’s in Riot-Act are an improvement on her last effort!

Imagine constantly excusing the objectively woeful performance of our government with whataboutism around an opposition that haven’t been in power for 20+ years.

Ironically I think your last sentence could apply far closer to home for you also Jack.

As pointed out in the above comment, the Canberra Liberals have only been languishing in opposition for 20 years (thanks Chewy, 22 years and 6 elections actually). Canberra’s health system and its two hospitals service both ACT and NSW residents. Even Victorian patients from what I have seen. I am currently going through the health system and have been pleasantly surprised. Rushed through for emergency surgery at short notice. While the health system is not perfect (what state or territory is) that is my experience. I am old enough to remember the cut-backs and cost cutting from the Carnell government. Not to mention all of the controversy. 22 years of obstruction and negativity from the Canberra Liberals and we are just over 18-months out from an election. What do the Canberra Liberals have to offer rather than trashing the hospital and government policy? I am looking to media (and Riot-Act) to be a little more robust in their reporting and offer some balance by providing some insight into what the Canberra Liberals propose.

“I am looking to media (and Riot-Act) to be a little more robust in their reporting and offer some balance”

We can definitely agree on that Jack but it should mostly occur by holding the current government to account for their massive failings in multiple core service areas, rather than the boosting and soft touch they are mostly given.

The health system in the ACT is a shambles, we are well behind the other states and well behind target perfirmance metrics.

No amount of partisan whataboutism can excuse the people in charge for their inability to do their jobs.

I am well aware of the ACT health system’s failings and where we lead. Government reports are freely available online. We led the country with our COVID response. We also have drug reforms which could go further. The Canberra Liberals have opposed all of these proposals. Your well proffered and negative views towards the government are well known. After 22 years in opposition and just over 18 months from the next election I am looking forward to seeing an opposition that can get past its lacklustreness and provide a real alternative. I don’t hold out much hope. I recently met Ms Castley when she was out and about in her electorate. I wasn’t impressed. She offered no alternative just criticism. Her shallowness and lack of knowledge on the health system and everything else was deplorable. And she is the opposition health spokesman for goodness sake! But what does one expect from such a shallow pool of elected Liberal representatives. Let’s hope the media offers some balance and a little more robustness in their reporting leading up to the next election and give us a bit of insight into what the Liberals propose in the way of policy.

“We led the country with our COVID response”

We didn’t remotely “lead” the country with our Covid response. We had a government that was led by the decisions of other government’s and made some very poor decisions based on zero health advice and evidence. We were relatively lucky due to the shape of our workforce that so many could easily shift to working from home that lessened our outbreaks and the impact of COVID. And when other taxpayers are footing the bill, so much the better hey Jack?

“Your well proffered and negative views towards the government are well known”

My views are only related to their performance, something that you should perhaps try sometime. If you’d been paying attention, you would have actually noted the many times I’ve supported them in the areas they have actually shown leadership, few though those areas may be.

The rest of your comment just repeats your meaningless partisan whataboutism because you are unable to think objectively beyond petty party politics.

Your well proferred negative views about an opposition that hasn’t been in power for 20+ years and aren’t in control of anything are well known. Your focus on them instead of the people actually running the show is completely transparent.

And yes, let’s hope local media give us a bit of balance coming up to the next election and actually call out the woeful performance of the current government and their clear failings instead of the constant light touch and obvious bias in their favour that we constantly see.

Yes, Ms Stephen-Smith it really IS important to put “the numbers” into “context”. The numbers indicate that there were, and very likely still are, about 30,000 people waiting in pain and subsequent distress. Did you know that there are about 27,000 people working in the ACT Government? That’s a lot of people potentially unable to work or enjoy life to their full capacity. Stop making excuses and fix your mess, please.

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