Regional patients also have to wait longer for the most urgent and least urgent elective surgeries.
Patients at Ballarat, Bendigo and Latrobe Hospitals waited an average of 14 days for the most urgent category 1 surgery, compared with the statewide average of 12 days.
While they had shorter waiting times for category 2 surgery, patients at Bendigo, Shepparton and Geelong hospitals waited between 192 and 216 days for category 3 surgery, compared to the statewide average of 149 days.
Central Victorian retired Pat, who lives near Avoca in central Victoria, has been waiting for a knee replacement for more than 18 months after receiving a referral to a surgeon.
He is now in excruciating pain and is dependent on a cane.
“It’s really debilitating because you lose your balance,” he says. “I live on painkillers.”
Pat saw a surgeon last May and was placed on the waiting list for surgery at Stawell hospital.
But after hearing nothing for months, he was contacted by surgeons who said he was no longer operating at the Stawell hospital, which is merging with hospital services including Ballarat Health to form Grampians Health in October 2021.
Pat was forced to take out private health insurance and hopes to have his surgery in January.
North Grampians Shire Mayor Rob Haswell said other constituents had contacted him with similar experiences. But the exact duration of their waiting time is unknown because elective surgery waiting list data was not collected for Stawell hospitals.
At a board meeting earlier this month, Haswell filed a motion of no confidence in Grampians Health and accused it of eroding services after taking over the Stawell hospital.
In a statement on its website earlier this month, Grampians Health confirmed that Stawell’s hospital is still growing and has not stopped operations. It said work was under way in a second operating room to double Stawell’s surgical capacity.
However, it was confirmed suspending the operating rights of a visiting surgeon last year. It said all affected public patients were reassessed and reassigned to triage categorization.
“We are constantly working with patients to shift their care to other surgeons,” he said.
A state government spokesman said the latest health data showed that waiting lists for surgery had fallen 20 percent since the launch of last year’s $1.5 billion COVID catch-up plan. They say every category 1 surgery is performed within the recommended time.
The spokesperson added that the government has recruited and trained more than 6,000 health workers, expanded Victoria’s virtual emergency department and set up 27 primary care centers (one third are in regional Victoria) to reduce pressure on hospitals.
“Work is underway to increase the recruitment, retention and supply of doctors across the public health sector, given that this is a regional and rural specific problem and it is difficult to fill specialties,” he said.
Dr Steve Gourley, president-elect of the Australasia College for Emergency Medicine, said staffing problems were causing worsening hospital care across Australia.
In Victoria, more than 200 health workers resigned each week in 2020-21, with many burnt out from work during the pandemic.
“A lot of that boils down to making regional Australia more attractive, which may involve more financial incentives,” said Gourley.
Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier accused the government of failing to meet regional healthcare requests.
“Every Victorian deserves basic healthcare close to home,” he said. “They don’t get that at the moment because the healthcare doesn’t exist.”
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