Governments must resume elective surgery, say health experts

Medical experts are calling on state and federal governments to reconsider the need for the ban on elective surgery procedures, warning that the backlog of cases may take years to process.

Over the past two years, thousands of Australians have had planned medical procedures postponed as hospitals reserved capacity for the rush of COVID cases.

Although they are called ‘elective’ surgeries, they are often essential medical procedures needed to maintain good quality of life. An elective surgery is defined as any surgical procedure that can be postponed for at least 24 hours.

The median wait time in the 2020/21 financial year for an elective surgery was 48 days, an increase of nine days compared with the previous year, according to data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Melbourne-based plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr Jill Tomlinson says at least particularly important surgeries should be reinstated.

Read: Check to see if you can claim for delayed elective surgery

“The decision to restrict elective surgery every time (COVID) case numbers rise has been embedded in the minds of health ministers and state controllers across Australia,” Dr Tomlinson told The New Daily.

“But it’s an embedded idea that really is not there for good reasons and needs to be reconsidered.”

New South Wales has announced it will resume ‘non-urgent’ elective surgery from Monday 7 February, while South Australia has given the go-ahead for elective day surgeries to resume on 14 February.

In Queensland, chief medical officer Yvette D’Arth announced a suspension of all elective surgery until 1 March, while in Western Australia, Premier Mark McGowan’s tough border restrictions have done enough to mean elective surgery there remains open.

In Victoria, all elective surgeries are banned under the state’s ‘code brown’ emergency declaration. But health professionals there are pushing for the ban to be lifted as it appears the peak of Omicron cases may have been reached.

Read: Cut the waiting time on elective surgeries

Leaked documents seen by The Age indicate the state government is preparing to lift the ban, sending correspondence to private hospitals telling them to prepare for elective surgeries to be at 50 per cent capacity.

“We understand how difficult it is for those waiting for surgery, and we will work hard to address elective surgery wait lists as soon as it’s safe to do so,” a spokesperson for the Victorian Department of Health says.

While the bans may have been necessary to preserve hospital capacity in the face of the pandemic, many experts fear politicians are too quick to deem elective surgeries superfluous.

Some even want the name of the surgeries to be changed, as calling them ‘elective’ implies they are somehow optional.

Read: Afterpay for elective surgery sparks warnings of financial risk

“The vast majority of us are out there restoring sight, restoring hearing, restoring function, screening for cancers, getting rid of stones out of people’s kidneys, that sort of stuff,” says Dr Neela Janakiramanan, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon.

“There are campaigns in multiple English-speaking countries at the moment to change that term.”

In the French and German languages, the term for elective surgery translates to English as “planned surgery”, which Dr Janakiramanan says is a more accurate reflection of the procedures.

“It’s very easy for a politician to stand up and say, ‘We’re going to cancel elective surgery’, because it makes it sound like something fun that someone is choosing to do. Whereas if they had to stand up and say, ‘We are going to cancel essential surgery’, that has a very different tone about it.”

Have you had any issues with elective surgery being postponed? Do you believe that cancelling these procedures is the right call? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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