Experts call for rethink on cataract surgery wait time

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However, the paper’s authors said these figures were an under-reporting of the actual wait time for most patients, noting there is a “wait for the wait” – the time taken to receive a referral to a public outpatient ophthalmology service, a statistic which is not publicly reported in NSW.

In Victoria, the median referral wait time in 2019 was three months, but in South Australia it was 15 months. In Queensland, depending on the severity of a person’s vision impairment, 10 per cent of patients waited between 10 and 20 months for a referral.

Category 3 surgeries, including cataract surgery, were shut down again in NSW public hospitals in late July and in private hospitals by mid-August to free up resources for pandemic operations.

It was allowed to recommence alongside other day surgery from October 4.

The number of cataract patients waiting more than a year for surgery – the longest recommended wait time for category 3 surgery – in NSW blew out to more than 1950 following the initial elective surgery shutdown last year, according to Bureau of Health Information data.

But figures recovered significantly over the following 12 months – just 76 patients who received surgery between April and June this year waited over a year.

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Sydney Eye Hospital surgeon Professor Peter McCluskey, who also co-authored the paper, said it was likely the impact of the most recent shutdown would not be seen until early 2022, given the delay in referrals.

“A lot of eye care providers, outside of ophthalmology such as optometrists, have had to restrict their practice – it is going to take months before the system recalibrates itself and we know what things are like,” he said.

Payal Mukherjee, NSW chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, said patients waiting for category 3 surgery could still experience substantial disruption to their livelihoods and wellbeing. She said the one-year recommended time for the surgery to be completed was a “worst case”.

“Obviously we should do it sooner if we can,” she said, noting it was category 3 procedures – such as ENT, orthopaedics and ophthalmology – which had their waitlists blown out most significantly by pandemic shutdowns.

Professor Keay said the pandemic recovery and the speed at which the elective surgery backlog had been tackled presented an opportunity to reconsider what was an acceptable wait time for cataract surgery in Australia.

“We had to innovate to get things done during COVID – maybe we can keep innovating,” she said.

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