An evolution in the collection of elective surgery waiting times data is the focus of Waiting Times for Elective Surgery in Australia 1998-99 released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Head of the AIHW's Hospitals and Mental Health Services Unit, Jenny Hargreaves, said that improvements in data quality over the last couple of years have now enabled the Institute to provide a better overview of elective surgery waiting times.
'We are now able to present information according to the specialty of the surgeon who was to perform the elective surgery, and include data about patients waiting for particular procedures,' Ms Hargreaves said.
'But to give a clearer picture of what's happening at State and Territory level we still need more improvements in data quality, timeliness, and consistency in data collection.'
Ms Hargreaves said that the Institute had been emphasising waiting times as 'a better indicator of hospital performance' than numbers on waiting lists. 'After all, if a particular hospital has a long waiting list, but the patients on the list are all operated on within a week, then the size of the list may not be a problem.'
The report shows that around 20% of Australians waiting for elective surgery had 'extended waits' (waited for longer periods than defined desirable periods) at the end of June 1999. About 20% of patients classified as 'category 1' (admission clinically desirable within 30 days) had waited longer than the defined period.
For those admitted for elective surgery during 1998-99, about 9% had experienced extended waits. Orthopaedic surgery had the largest proportion of patients with extended waits (15%), followed by ear, nose and throat surgery (13%).
Among the procedures for which data were available, total knee replacement had the largest proportion of patients admitted with extended waits (26%).
The experience of various States and Territories still cannot be compared with confidence. The figures show variation in the percentage of patients waiting an extended time before admission, from less than 10% in South Australia, Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory to more than 20% in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory.
'With the data we currently have these differences are difficult for us to explain,' Ms Hargreaves said. 'It may be a combination of differences in coverage and use of definitions in each State and Territory, variation in the assignment of urgency categories and differences in the types of elective surgery undertaken.'