How to cope if you’re on a hospital waiting list

Dealing with health problems can be tough at the best of times – not to mention when long waiting lists for referrals and treatment are thrown into the mix.

Hospital backlogs are worse than ever since the pandemic. Right now, hospital waiting times for elective surgery are noticeably longer in the public system compared to private. Of the 25 most common surgeries in Australia during 2020–21, the longest waiting times in public hospitals were for: septoplasty at 330 days, total knee replacement at 308 days and myringoplasty at 292 days. If you need a total hip replacement, you’re looking on being on a waiting list for an average of 179 days.

As well as dealing with any symptoms and pain that might be affecting you, not knowing when you’ll be able to get the answers or treatment you need can feel like an extremely frustrating limbo.

So if you are stuck in this situation and finding it hard, is there anything you can do to help make it easier?

What can you do for yourself right now?
It can be really tough when something that’s out of your control is impacting your life and wellbeing. Sadly, we can’t snap our fingers and make waiting lists disappear – but focusing on what we can control makes a big difference, says psychologist and stress coach Obehi Alofoje.

She suggests keeping in mind the five pillars of wellbeing. There are different interpretations of this model, but generally speaking it includes being physically active, connections with others, being present in the moment, learning new skills, and giving. Think about what these things mean for you and how they might look right now.

Read: Knee surgery can have some surprising side-effects

“Exercise generates happy hormones, the body’s natural antidepressants,” says Ms Alofoje. “So do anything you can to get your heart pumping.” If your health issues are affecting your strength and mobility, look up chair-based workouts on YouTube. You could also speak to your GP or healthcare professional about accessible exercise and support available with this.

Talk about it
Being on a long waiting list can be very isolating. “Talk to your family and friends, let them know what you’re going through. You don’t have to hide it. Everybody is struggling in some way and talking about it allows us to know how we can help each other,” says Ms Alofoje.

If you work, could talking to your manager help? If your workload or hours are becoming difficult, Ms Alofoje suggests speaking with your employer so they are aware of what’s happening and how they can support you. While this might feel hard to do, “we all need to ask for help sometimes,” Ms Alofoje reassures, and if we don’t take steps to manage stress when it’s bubbling over then it often just escalates.

Check whether your company has an Employee Assistance Programme, which could give you access to free and confidential short-term counselling via an external provider. This can be especially helpful if you can’t afford to pay for private mental health support, or if you are already on a waiting list for therapy.

Feeling unheard and overlooked
Being on an endless waiting list can leave you feeling as though you’re being overlooked – which can add to the overwhelm and lead to a downward emotional spiral, feeling trapped and hopeless.

While all these thoughts are understandable, senior therapist Sally Baker ( says it’s helpful to be aware of how our past experiences and beliefs about ourselves might be playing a part – if you’re feeling not heard or valued.

Read: Trials and tribulations of elective surgery in a public hospital

Some people find this harder to deal with. For example, Ms Baker says: “[Those] people who are triggered by previous experiences of overwhelm and not counting, not feeling deserving.”

The emotional spiral might be a trauma response, as this sense of being overlooked pokes at the wounds of previous times in your life when you’ve felt like this. While we can’t just switch these things off, being aware of how our minds are working can be really helpful – and empower us to have a sense of control over what we’re experiencing right now.

Break the cycle
If you find yourself dwelling in these feelings, Ms Baker says a great tactic is to actively interrupt your thoughts. “It’s not about just being hopeful or optimistic,” explains Ms Baker. “It’s about having a realistic appraisal of the situation: there is nothing I can do about this today, therefore I am going to not think about it, and when I find myself thinking about it, I’m going to interrupt these thoughts.”

She suggests doing something that involves movement and/or making a sound: “You could do a cross-crawl exercise, where you get up and put your right hand on your left knee, and left hand on your right knee, and walk around the room looking like an idiot! What you’re doing is changing state, taking action on your thoughts, instead of being a victim of your thoughts.”

Read: Reducing the risk of stroke, heart problems after surgery

Seek some joy
Seizing pockets of joy won’t make your health problems disappear – but it will bring some well-deserved pleasure and help you get through the wait. “Think about the things you used to do for fun, the things you love,” says Ms Alofoje. “Things are open up again now, so whatever it was that was helpful for you before the pandemic, you might have access to it.”

It might be planning a fishing trip, getting to the cinema or a museum, having your hair done – you choose. As Ms Alofoje says: “It’s about thinking about what things help you get through the day in the best possible way.”

– With PA

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  1. Nice article, but I suspect written for a younger cohort that the YLC readership. Before retiring, I religiously paid into Health Care, which as a pensioner I can not longer afford. Now when I find I need health services, the wait times are very concerning. No credit for the years I paid fees, but never used them! I guess that’s how it goes..

    It’s a bit like one of my buddies went onto the AP and was promptly removed from NDIS. Seems his ailments miraculously improved when he reached pension age. Go figure!

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