Many elective surgery patients were left waiting in limbo — and pain — after coronavirus restrictions came into force last month. Now many are set to benefit as restrictions begin to ease.

April 21, 2020 15:59:25
For weeks, hundreds of thousands of Australians needing operations like hip and knee replacements have been left waiting in limbo and in pain after the Government hastily cancelled non-urgent elective surgeries in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
It wanted to conserve valuable resources like personal protective equipment (PPE) and help the health system prepare for an anticipated influx of patients expected due to COVID-19.
But now that it’s secured extra medical supplies and watching the new number of cases dry up by the day, it has announced a plan to bring back some elective procedures after the Anzac Day long weekend.
So who will this announcement help? And what does it mean for the deal the Government already secured with the private health sector?
We’ve taken a look at the fine print of the announcement.
What surgeries were cancelled?
First things first let’s recap what had been cancelled.
Last month, the Government put a stop to all “non-urgent” surgeries which means that for the last few weeks, only Category 1 and the most urgent Category 2 elective surgeries have been going ahead.
Category 1 surgeries are classed as procedures that need to be performed within 30 days.
They also have the potential to deteriorate quickly to the point where the patient’s situation could become an emergency. For example, a breast lump or cancerous skin lesion both fall into this category.
Category 2 surgeries need to happen within 90 days. They treat conditions that cause pain or disability, but are unlikely to escalate to an emergency. This could be something like a standard heart valve replacement.
Category 3 surgeries had been cancelled up until this point, and need to happen within 360 days. And while they may cause pain, they are unlikely to deteriorate quickly.
Something like a tonsil removal or varicose vein procedure both fall into this category, if there are no complications.
What’s coming back?
The government is bringing back all Category 2 and some Category 3 surgeries.
That includes IVF procedures, post-cancer procedures (like breast reconstructions) joint replacements like knee, hip and shoulder reconstructions, denture fittings and fillings, eye procedures like cataract surgery and endoscopies such as colonoscopies and gastroscopies.
It also includes all procedures for anyone under the age of 18.
The Government’s priority are procedures that are classed as low risk but high reward, or those procedures that are unlikely to spread coronavirus to clinicians, but will hugely benefit patients.
Those surgeries will start again as early as April 27 in all states and territories, and the decision will be reviewed on May 11.
The most common procedures
There were a whopping 2.2 million elective-surgery-related admissions to hospitals in 2017-18, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Of those, 66 per cent occurred in private hospitals.
The three most common reasons for elective surgeries in that time period were malignant skin lesions, cataracts, and other eye issues.
The Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today’s announcement would result in the resumption of about 25 per cent of elective surgery activity in public and private hospitals.
Has the Government’s deal with the private hospitals changed?
After the Government cancelled most elective surgeries, it struck a deal with private hospitals to ensure they wouldn’t collapse and it will stay the same.
In return for the Government’s support, public hospitals were promised access to the private system’s 30,000 beds, ventilators and 105,000 skilled workers.
The Government initially put aside $1.3 billion for the deal, but now expects the final cost will be lower, given more surgeries will resume, pumping more money back into private hospitals.
Paul Andrews from St Vincent’s Health Australia, which runs 10 private hospitals across the country, said the move “spoke volumes about Australia’s success in the battle against COVID-19.”
“It’s a terrific signpost on the road back to normality,” he said.
“Private hospitals are 100 per cent in the fight against COVID-19 and will remain so but given how well Australia is tracking with the pandemic, there is certainly capacity there for our facilities and our personnel to start working on priority cases of elective surgery.”
How big an impact will this have?
Private Healthcare Australia (PHA), which represents private health insurers, said the decision was good news for Australians living in pain and discomfort.
“Many patients who have spent the last month living in distress and uncertainty as a result of the temporary restrictions on elective surgery will now have clarity on when their surgery will take place,” chief executive Rachel David said.
She said health funds would now work closely with private hospitals to try to safely clear the backlog of elective procedures.
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Australian Medical Association President Tony Bartone said it was welcome news for patients.
“It will assist in managing their underlying condition, assist in improving their quality of life and improving their health outcomes,” he said.
“They’ll start to be resumed on a sensible, safe and clinical needs-basis, to ensure we keep half an eye on the system in case there’s any increase in COVID numbers, while ensuring there’s minimal risk to the patient and clinical staff.”
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