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After a specialist clinical assessment, the treating doctor places the patient on an elective surgery waiting list. Patients can be removed from a waiting list for a range of reasons – including because they were admitted for their awaited procedure, the surgery was no longer required, they were treated elsewhere, or they were unable to be contacted or had died.
This section presents information on additions to, and removals from, public hospital elective surgery waiting lists in 2021–22 and in other recent years.
Information is also presented by:
Last updated 18/11/2020 v8.0
Since early 2020, restrictions on the conduct of some elective surgeries have been implemented at various times as part of Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, these restrictions were applied nationally, although as different states, territories and regions managed outbreaks over the following years, restrictions have applied to different geographic regions and at different times. These restrictions have had effects on the volume, type and timing of elective surgery procedures undertaken.
These restrictions have primarily aimed to ensure the health system maintained adequate capacity to respond to the needs of people requiring acute care as a result of COVID-19. However, at other stages of the COVID pandemic, the restrictions have reflected disruptions to the delivery of hospital services due to COVID infections which have affected staff and patients and the availability of resources (e.g. ICU beds).
The urgency category of an elective surgery procedure is classified based on the recommended timeframe in which the patient requires care.
This section presents analyses on public hospital admissions from elective surgery waiting lists over the 2019–20 to 2021–22 period to assess the impact of COVID-19 on elective surgery activity.
The data visualisation shows monthly admissions from 2019–20 to 2021–22 by:
Data are also presented for 2018–19 for comparative purposes.
Impact of COVID-19 on elective surgery activity
All data in these visualisations are available for download in the Data & downloads section of the MyHospitals website.
This figure shows the monthly admissions from elective surgery waiting lists between 2018–19 and 2021–22. Data is presented by urgency category. National data is available. In the month of June 2022, there were 20,119 monthly category 1 admissions, 21,761 monthly category 2 admissions and 18,150 monthly category 3 admissions.
This figure shows the monthly admissions from elective surgery waiting lists between 2018–19 and 2021–22. Data is presented by surgical specialty and urgency category. National, state and territory data is available. In the month of June 2022, there were 12,317 monthly admissions for General surgery.
This figure shows the weekly admissions from public hospital elective surgery waiting lists between 2018–19 and 2021–22. Data is presented by indicator procedure and urgency category. National, state and territory data is available. In the month of June 2022, there were 39,746 admissions for Other procedures.
Nationally, between 2014–15 and 2018–19, the number of admissions for elective surgery increased by 2.1% on average each year.
In 2019–20, there was a reduction in admissions from public hospital elective surgery waiting lists associated with the initial introduction of restrictions that applied nationally. Compared with 2018–19, in 2019–20:
During the peak of the COVID‑19 restrictions in 2019–20, the number of public hospital elective surgeries performed per month decreased from 58,200 in March to 26,500 in April.
In 2020–21, following the decrease in admissions from elective surgery waiting lists in the previous year, admissions increased by 9.6%. This increase was not consistent across all jurisdictions. Many jurisdictions saw the number of admissions in 2020–21 exceed that of 2019–20 with most, but not all, jurisdictions’ admissions exceeding pre-COVID numbers.
However, in 2021–22, which saw a dramatic increase in COVID–19 case numbers and hospitalisations across many parts of Australia, all jurisdictions except Tasmania saw a reduction in elective surgery admissions. Nationally, compared to 2020–21, admissions from elective surgery waiting lists declined by 17% (from 754,600 to 623,000) – with the largest decreases seen in New South Wales (27% reduction; from 251,000 to 182,900) and Western Australia (23% reduction; 92,400 to 71,000).
Compared with 2020–21, in 2021–22:
In January 2022, there was a considerable decline in Category 3 procedures, most likely due to disruptions to the delivery of hospital services as a result of rising COVID case numbers and hospitalisation.
Compared to 2018–19, in 2019–20, the surgical specialties that showed the greatest decrease in admissions were Otolaryngology, head and neck surgery (15%), Ophthalmology surgery (eye and optic nerve surgery) (15%), and Orthopaedic surgery (14%). In 2020–21, most surgical specialties saw an increase in admissions except for Cardiothoracic surgery (4.4% decrease).
However, in 2021–22, there were decreases in admissions from public hospital elective surgery waiting lists across all specialties. The surgical specialties with the greatest decrease in admissions were:
In 2021–22, the number of admissions from public hospital elective surgery waiting lists decreased across all selected intended (indicator) procedures, when compared with 2020–21. The procedures with the greatest decrease were:
To explore the influence of COVID-19 on other health data, further releases are available on the AIHW website under COVID-19 Resources.
Information on the total confirmed cases and active cases can be found on the Australian Government Department of Health website.
To explore admissions from public hospital elective surgery waiting lists by hospital or LHN see My local area.
Appendixes and caveat information for this data is available to download in the Info and downloads section.
Definitions of the terms used in this section are available in the Glossary.
Indicator procedures are a list of 15 procedures, selected due to their high volume. However, this was replaced by intended procedures, which is a much larger list of 152 procedures, and includes the 15 indicator procedures. In this report, the selected intended procedures used are the 15 indicator procedures.
Elective surgery waiting list activity is measured by the number of additions to and removals from public hospital elective surgery waiting lists, and the number of patients admitted for their awaited procedure.
This data visualisation below presents data for 2021–22 and recent years.
The data can also be explored:
Waiting list activity
National time series
This bar graph shows the number of additions and removals to elective surgery waiting lists, as well as admissions for the reporting years 2017–18 through to 2021–22. Data is presented by admission status. In 2017–18, there were 748,778 admissions for All surgery, whereas in 2021–22 there were 628,519.
Hospitals and LHNs
This table shows elective surgery activity between 2013–14 and 2021–22. Data is presented by urgency category. Hospital and Local Hospital Network (LHN) data is available.
Overall, in 2021–22:
In 2021–22, admissions from elective surgery waiting lists decreased overall by 17% compared with 2020-21, likely due to COVID-19 restrictions and limitations on hospital services during this period.
This contrasts with the change in the previous year, where admissions increased overall by 9.6% between 2019–20 and 2020–21. In the year prior, 2019–20, which was the first year of restrictions due to COVID-19, there was an overall reduction of elective surgeries admissions by 9.2% compared with 2018–19. In the years preceding this period, the number of admissions increased annually on average by 2.1% from 2014–15 to 2018–19.
The change in the number of elective surgery admissions, from 2020–21 to 2021–22, was not uniform across Australia. In NSW, admissions decreased by 27%, while admissions increased in Tasmania by 11%. This is likely due to the disproportionate impact COVID-19 had on each state and territory.
In 2021–22, 783,700 patients were added to elective surgery waiting lists in Australia – a 12% decrease from the number of patients added in 2020–21. However, it should be noted that:
The 16% decrease in removals in 2021–22 followed an 11% increase in 2020–21, which in turn, was followed by an 8.0% decrease in removals in 2019–20. This fluctuating pattern in recent years is likely due to restrictions and limitations in services that were able to be provided in response to COVID-19 outbreaks at different periods over these three years. In the years before COVID-19, the total number of removals from waiting lists increased on average by 2.3% each year between 2014–15 and 2018–19.
In 2021–22, there was an 11.5% decrease in patients removed from elective surgery waiting lists due to being transferred to another hospital’s waiting list, compared with 2020–21. In comparison, the change in the previous corresponding period was an increase of 40%; and in the year prior, it increased by 20%. The increase in these previous two years were possibly due in part, to management of waiting lists during COVID-19.
To explore elective surgery waiting times by hospital or LHN see My local area.
ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) (2022) Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, ABS website, accessed 20 October 2022.
The surgical speciality describes the area of clinical expertise held by the doctor scheduled to perform the elective surgery. This section presents information on the type of elective surgery provided, by surgical speciality, in 2021–22 and changes over recent years.
Information on 11 categories of surgical speciality is presented. The ‘other’ category contains data for surgeons whose speciality was not one of the 11 specified categories.
The data can be explored:
The continuation of restrictions on elective surgery admissions across some jurisdictions and the overall impact of the COVID–19 pandemic in recent years should be considered when interpreting this data.
Admissions by surgical specialty
This line graph shows the number of admissions between 2017–18 and 2021–22. Data is presented by surgical specialty. National, state and territory data is available. In 2017–18, there were 11,802 admissions for Cardiothoracic surgery, whereas in 2021–22 there were 9,834.
This table shows the number of admissions between 2012–13 and 2021–22. Data is presented by surgical specialty. Hospital, Local Hospital Network (LHN), national, state and territory data is available.
In 2021–22, of the 623,000 admissions from elective surgery waiting lists:
In general, those surgical specialties with the largest decreases between 2018–19 and 2019–20 had the greatest increase in admissions between 2019–20 and 2020–21.
The intended surgical procedure describes the type of surgery for which a patient has been placed on a public hospital elective surgery waiting list. In some instances, the intended procedure may not reflect what was actually performed during the hospitalisation.
In the data visualisations below, you can explore data about admissions from elective surgery waiting lists for 15 intended procedures and ‘other’ procedures for 2021–22 and recent years by:
The 15 intended procedures selected were previously known as indicator procedures, chosen due to their typically high volume of admissions and long wait times.
Admissions by intended procedure
This line graph shows the number of admissions between 2017–18 and 2021–22. Data is presented by intended procedure. National, state and territory data is available. In 2017–18, there were 70,202 admissions for Cataract extraction, whereas in 2021–22 there were 58,186.
This table shows the number of admissions between 2012–13 and 2021–22. Data is presented by intended procedure. Hospital, Local Hospital Network (LHN), national, state and territory data is available.
Admissions for most indicator procedures decreased between 2021–22 compared with 2020–21, likely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
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