Sick Queenslanders are facing longer waits for surgery and getting hooked on painkillers in the process, despite record funding for public hospitals.
Sick Queenslanders are facing longer waits for surgery and getting hooked on painkillers in the process, despite record funding for public hospitals.

Queenslanders dying, addicted as they wait for surgery

SICK Queenslanders are going blind and getting hooked on painkillers as they wait for years to have surgery in public hospitals.

Elderly patients are waiting longer for eye surgery and hip and knee replacements due to a major blowout in surgical waiting lists in Queensland.

Waiting times have ballooned to more than a year for one in every 30 Queenslanders requiring cataract surgery and one in 36 needing a hip or knee replacement.

An investigation by The Sunday Mail into waiting lists has revealed:

● Elderly patients have gone blind waiting for cataract surgery;

● Children are living on pureed food as they wait months for a tonsil operation, and;

● Patients have become hooked on dangerously addictive drugs to deal with the pain as they wait for back surgery, or hip or knee replacements.

Hotspots for long waiting times include the retiree hubs of the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast and Hervey Bay, as well as Cairns and Townsville.

Queensland Health data reveals 56,176 Queenslanders are in the queue for surgery - an increase of 7 per cent in two years despite record spending on hospitals. As many as 876 patients died while waiting for elective surgery last year.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Queensland chairman Dr Bruce Willett, warned delays were making patients sicker.

"Cataract surgery delays can be very tough on old people,'' he said. "They can't see, so they can't read and they can't watch TV and become very isolated. Some may end up with a fall or hurt themselves, compounding the health problems.''

Australian Medical Association president Dr Tony Bartone warned patients were becoming "dependent'' on drugs to ease their pain if they waited too long for an operation.

"People are becoming very dependent on painkillers because they've got no other option,'' he said.

Dr Bartone said record funding was failing to keep pace with demand for surgery.

"Not only are we living longer, but we've got an ageing population with more complications,'' he said.

At the new $1.5 billion Queensland Children's Hospital, one in 10 kids needing an eye operation, and one in eight needing general surgery, are waiting longer than the clinically recommended time for an operation.

Sick children are waiting longer for tonsillectomies and ear grommets, eye operations and orthopaedic surgery.

One in 30 sick children had to wait at least a year for an eye operation or bone surgery.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data reveals the proportion of patients waiting more than a year for surgery in Queensland's public hospitals has trebled in the past two years.

One in ten children at Queensland Children’s Hospital, one in ten children are waiting longer for an eye operation are waiting longer than the clinically recommended time for an operation. Picture: Marc Robertson
One in ten children at Queensland Children’s Hospital, one in ten children are waiting longer for an eye operation are waiting longer than the clinically recommended time for an operation. Picture: Marc Robertson

One in every 75 patients waited more than a year for surgery in 2018-19, compared to one in every 250 patients in 2016-17.

And more than 14,000 patients queuing for surgery were moved between hospital waiting lists in 2018-19.

AIHW data shows that for orthopaedic surgery, waiting times have doubled in past five years, with 90 per cent of patients now queuing up to 344 days for orthopaedic surgery.

At Caloundra hospital, one in eight cataract patients has been forced to wait longer than a year for surgery.

The median wait for orthopaedic surgery has more than trebled at the Gold Coast University Hospital - from 20 days in 2016-17 to 75 days last financial year.

At Longreach Hospital, median wait times doubled to 42 days for gynaecological operations and to 155 days for ear, nose and throat surgery.

One in 10 patients needing a hip or knee replacement at Ipswich hospital waited more than a year.

At Queensland's biggest hospital, the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital, the median wait for ear, nose and throat operations - including tonsil removal - has nearly doubled to 42 days, with one in 17 patients waiting longer than a year. The wait for orthopaedic surgery exceeds a year for one in every 15 patients.

The Mater Hospital has the most patients on waiting lists for longer than a year - 5.3 per cent of patients needing ear, nose and throat surgery, 12 per cent needing cataract surgery and 5.4 per cent needing orthopaedic surgery. In Townsville, nearly 10 per cent of patients must wait at least a year for orthopaedic surgery while more than 6 per cent of women wait more than 12 months for gynaecological surgery, including a hysterectomy.

And at the $1.8 billion Sunshine Coast University Hospital, waiting lists are at least a year long for one in every 12 patients requiring eye surgery.

Spending on public hospitals has doubled in a decade to a record $14 billion in 2017-18, Productivity Commission data shows. But the hospitals still provide just 2.5 beds for every 1000 Queenslanders.

Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles said public hospitals treated 142,000 patients on the elective surgery waiting list in 2018-19 - 1400 more than the year before.

He said nearly 95 per cent of patients were seen within clinically recommended times.

"The data clearly shows that Queensland's hardworking surgical theatre teams are performing more surgeries overall and more surgeries within clinically recommended times,'' he said.

Mr Miles said Queensland Health had hired 2000 extra doctors since 2015 and would hire 200 more this financial year.

"The Palaszczuk Government has opened 888 additional hospital beds across the State over the four years to June 2019,'' he said. "Over the next four years, we will deliver a further 756 additional beds.''

A Queensland Health spokeswoman said public hospitals were "part of one of the best health systems in the world''.

"We always strive to see patients needing elective surgery within clinically recommended times, prioritising time critical, emergency trauma patients in need of lifesaving surgery,'' she said.

 

ONLY OPTION TO DOLE OUT PAINKILLERS

AS QUEENSLANDERS are left on hospital wait lists for years, experts fear the fallout from the long-term use of painkillers and antibiotics is setting patients up for even bigger health struggles.

As parents reveal they are concerned their children are on repeat courses of antibiotics to deal with recurrent ENT problems while they wait for surgery, a superbug expert says the State Government is breaching its own policy to commit to the vital management of antimicrobial use and resistance.

"Chronic overuse of antibiotics can impact on health later in life and antibiotic resistance can occur where the bacteria multiplies. Patients can be left vulnerable to serious superbugs," UQ Institute for Molecular Bioscience Centre for Superbug Solutions director Prof Matt Cooper said.

Professor Matt Cooper. Picture: Peter Wallis
Professor Matt Cooper. Picture: Peter Wallis

GPs treating people who are in pain as they await surgery are frustrated, too.

"There is a danger of extended painkiller consumption. We try to make sure they are not given out long-term but sometimes it can end up that way," Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Queensland chair Dr Bruce Willett said.

In 2019 a study of 14,354 Medicare patients showed opioid use prior to elective surgery was strongly associated with persistent use following surgery.

Patients waiting for hip and knee surgeries are often in chronic pain and these are areas where there can be longer waits.

KIDS BEING FORCED TO SUFFER IN PAIN

QUEENSLAND parents are at their wits' end as they wait for surgeries for their suffering children.

A Bundaberg mum has told of having to puree all of her four-year-old's food as her tonsils are so swollen that she cannot swallow solids.

"This started when she was three … Her teeth, jaw and speech are impacted as she is not developing due to never chewing. There is a constant fear she will choke," the woman, who did not want to be named, said.

"We are starting to worry that this delay will mean she will end up at school and still be suffering.

"I can't puree her food at school.

"If we went privately (through the private health system) it would cost just under $4000."

Also on the ENT waiting list is toddler from the Sunshine Coast who has shocking ear pain, according to her desperate mother.

"I'm desperate for some advice regarding ENT/grommets for our 18 month old. She has had recurrent ear infections since she was 10 weeks old and countless courses of antibiotics. She now has moderate hearing loss and a speech delay," she said.

Meanwhile Brisbane single mother Jazmyn Robinson said her son Matthew, 7, had complex health problems and had to wait many months for spine surgery.

"We were all set for August. I kept him off school as he has low immunity and I didn't want him getting sick and unable to have the surgery, but then the surgery didn't happen," she said.

"He was struggling to breathe. Even the doctors were disappointed. Eventually he got his surgery in October and has been doing well since then."

A Children's Health Queensland spokesman said surgery would be delayed if a patient was not clinically ready for the procedure.

A Queensland Health spokesman said that, due to confidentiality, they could not comment on specific cases without patients' consent.

CASE STUDY: EAR SURGERY 3 YEARS +

REGAN Poole is turning six and has been on the waiting list to have ear surgery for more than three years.

Sunshine Coast mum Samantha Poole with 5-year-old son Regan. Picture: Lachie Millard
Sunshine Coast mum Samantha Poole with 5-year-old son Regan. Picture: Lachie Millard

Mum Sam says he has had so many ear infections and so many courses of antibiotics she has lost count.

Regan, who is in grade one, now has problems with his speech as he struggles to hear properly and says he hears his own voice in his head.

"We get messages from Sunshine Coast Hospital from time to time asking if we want to remain on the waiting list. But yes we need to," Ms Poole said. "Regan is at school now and the problems with his ears are impacting his learning and his future. Sleepless nights have just become the norm.

"When he was two I received the usual letter that said the wait would be 365 days as he was Category 3. I think it is just a matter of inserting grommets."

The mother of four says that she was so worried about the amount of antibiotics that her son had been prescribed that he now went to a naturopath for alternative treatment.

CASE STUDY: KNEE RECONSTRUCTION: 5 MONTHS SO FAR

AN AUSSIE battler who worked as a truckie, furniture removalist and footy waterboy is essentially housebound while he sits on a waiting list for vital surgery.

John Harvey-Harris, 53, from Waterford West, has been on a hospital waiting list for a knee reconstruction for about five months and has no idea how long he will be waiting.

"I do feel sorry for the doctors and the hospitals and all that because of the way they're treated by the Government," he said.

"I know it's the Government who are in charge of all the funding."

John Harvey-Harris at home in Waterford West. Picture: AAP/Sarah Marshall
John Harvey-Harris at home in Waterford West. Picture: AAP/Sarah Marshall

Mr Harvey-Harris's condition has deteriorated while he has been on the list.

"I used to be active as, like I used to run footy and I used to help at the footy club a bit but I had to stop because I just couldn't do the job properly," he said. "Aldi is not even 100m from my house and I struggle to make it back."

Mr Harvey-Harris is just one of more than 56,000 Queenslanders waiting for important surgeries.

Mr Harvey-Harris's social worker, Jatinder Kaur, said she was worried John would become immobile if he did not receive his surgery soon.

"He is a 50-year-old man who has worked his whole life and now that he got an injury at work, he never got worker's compensation or access to appropriate support services for him to recover," Ms Kaur said.

"His health condition continues to deteriorate while Government pushes him to further wait for surgery."

 

ARE YOU STUCK ON A SURGERY WAITING LIST?

 

The Sunday Mail today launches Operation Wait Loss, a campaign urging State Health Minister Steven Miles to take decisive action to reduce the surgery queues in public hospitals.

In coming weeks the newspaper will examine in greater detail what has gone wrong and how it can be fixed.

And we'll tell the stories that really matter - those of the people waiting in distress.

Tell us your story. Send an email to natasha.bita@news.com.au or jackie.sinnerton@news.com.au