‘Infinite’ surgery waiting lists not going to get better

 

Queensland's top doctor claims that slashing hospital waiting lists will encourage people with "a slightly blocked nose" to join surgery queues, while hiring more doctors would encourage over-diagnosing patients to drum up business.

As Queensland Health struggles to fill 658 doctors' jobs in public hospitals, the Australian Medical Association's new Queensland president, Associate Professor Chris Perry, predicted patients with minor ailments would join surgery queues. 

"I'm not sure waiting lists are going to be getting any better,'' Dr Perry told The Sunday-Mail.

"The waiting lists are infinite.

"The more you tell people the waiting list has gone down, the more people with a sore back or slightly blocked nose will join the waiting list.

"(They think) if it's going to be free and if it's going to be next week, I might want to get it done.''

New AMAQ president Dr Chris Perry. Picture: John Gass
New AMAQ president Dr Chris Perry. Picture: John Gass

Queensland Health data reveals a record 2774 patients are now waiting longer than is safe for surgery, after the cancellation of non-emergency operations during the COVID-19 crisis in March.

The queue of Queenslanders forced to wait longer than the clinically recommended time for surgery is now 20 times longer than it was before the pandemic.

The State Government is pouring an extra $250 million into public hospitals and opening operating theatres after-hours, to cut the queues.

Dr Perry said the length of surgical waiting lists was not a good indicator of the quality of Queensland's world-class health system.

"You can't have hospitals sitting around waiting for patients,'' he said.

"We spend $1050 per year per patient in Queensland compared to the national average of $800.''

Medical Board of Australia data shows Queensland has 1209 surgeons for 5 million residents - including just 49 neurosurgeons, 43 heart surgeons and 49 vascular surgeons.

Queensland Health is now advertising for 648 resident medical officers and registrars in public hospitals, with many in regional towns.

Bundaberg Hospital is advertising for 17 doctors, Cairns Base Hospital needs 32 more doctors, the Gold Coast Health Service is seeking 53 doctors, Ipswich Hospital wants 28 more doctors and the Sunshine Coast University Hospital is advertising for 34 medicos.

Dr Perry said the Federal Government might have to pay surgeons extra to work in regional and remote hospitals.

"If you want to get people in those areas they can pay more,'' he said.

"Most doctors are married by the time they get through at 35 or 40 so it's hard for them to go places when their husband or wife has a separate career.

"The maldistribution will continue.''

But Dr Perry denied there was a need for more medicos in Queensland.

"There are plenty of surgeons around,'' he said.

"Do we need neurosurgeons on every second street corner? Probably not.

"Is it a scandal there's not a neurosurgeon twiddling their thumbs waiting for someone to come in with a sore back?

"Is 49 the right number? Probably.''

Dr Perry said Australia has 7500 medical students but "you can't keep pumping them out - we really don't have a doctor shortage in Australia''.

"Once there are too many doctors people do bizarre things'' he said.

"It's called over-servicing - they try to find diseases to treat and over-diagnose, it's just human nature.''

Queensland Health has stopped publishing detailed data on elective surgery performance since the COVID-19 pandemic, but a spokeswoman said surgeries had "rebounded''.

"Queensland's hospitals have performed above expectations given the unprecedented challenge the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our health system,'' she said.

Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles referred The Sunday-Mail's questions to Queensland Health, which said there was a worldwide shortage of neurosurgeons.

"Neurosurgery is a very specialised field which is in high demand both locally and internationally,'' a spokeswoman said.

"In the context of a worldwide shortage of neurosurgeons, Queensland is very fortunate to have some of the country's best neurosurgeons on staff.''

The latest Queensland Health data reveals long wait times for an initial consultation with a specialist in the state's public hospitals.

Three quarters of patients with the most urgent brain and spinal problems had to wait longer than the one-month limit for a Category 1 consultation, and only half the Category 2 patients were seen on time.

Surgeon numbers are controlled by the Royal Australian College of Surgeons, which was criticised for its "closed-shop arrangements and culture'' by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in 2003.