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Surgeons are begging general practitioners not to send them new patients because the hospital is too busy to treat them, creating a hidden waiting list of patients that are not measured in the official performance figures.
Blacktown Hospital’s only resident specialist surgeon David Dunn wrote to GPs last September requesting them not to refer patients to his outpatient clinic for the remainder of the year as it was already oversubscribed.
Associate Professor Dunn said he may be able to see a small number of patients who had urgent needs, but the clinic had neither the staff nor resources to take further appointments.
The true extent of the waiting list for elective surgery is unknown.
“It is regretted that patients may be inconvenienced but public outpatient general surgical services are not widely available and therefore referral through surgeons’ private consulting rooms may, therefore, be necessary for a timely treatment to be offered,” the letter said.
But doctors and patients have complained about the “hidden waiting list” of patients who are queueing to get appointments with specialists, which is not counted for the official figures because the clock starts after an operation is scheduled.
The latest quarterly data on hospital performance showed most elective surgery was performed within the recommended timeframes.
When contacted by Fairfax Media, Dr Dunn said that suspending appointments was a temporary measure because he did not want to raise false expectations that patients would be seen promptly.
But patients who had life-threatening conditions were always treated urgently.
“My wait list was about four months, which I thought was a bit unreasonable,” Dr Dunn said. “I wouldn’t want you to think the system is failing. It’s just a bit stretched and I make no bones about that, but we work very hard to meet our targets.”
He would have to close the clinic again when he went on long service leave after Easter, but patients would have access to the clinic at Westmead, he said.
“They’re pretty oversubscribed as well. People don’t want to go and see [specialists] in rooms because it costs them. That’s a luxury.”
The most recent statistics indicated that 100 per cent of Blacktown Hospital patients were getting their surgery on time and – like Concord Hospital, St Vincent’s, and Royal Prince Alfred – none were waiting longer than a year.
Hunter Valley general practitioner Richard Terry said every GP had stories of patients who waited years to get an appointment with a specialist.
He recently had a patient who had been waiting six years for an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon.
“I nearly fell off my chair when I looked back through my system and I’d given her a referral letter in 2010,” Dr Terry said.
“Once the patient actually gets an outpatient appointment, then the time the hospital takes to do their operation is actually quite good, but what’s really hidden is that the time it takes to get that appointment to the outpatient clinic in the first place.
“In some cases that can take many, many years.”
The Australian Medical Association NSW president Saxon Smith said the true extent of this waiting list was unknown and attempts to collect the data were impeded by different computer systems.
“Hunter New England has a computerised triage system. They know when the referral hits and when the triage gets served and when the patient is seen,” Dr Smith said.
“Other hospitals, it’s a fax that goes into a folder.”
Anecdotal evidence suggested the wait to get a specialist appointment was two years for non-urgent ophthalmological surgery at Liverpool and six to 12 months for dermatological surgery in western Sydney, he said.