Demand on Victoria’s hospitals and ambulances increases as elective surgery waitlist stabilizes

Since Alex Stosic’s heart failed in 2021, everyday tasks like waking up and getting dressed take hours and require a herculean effort.

For more than a year, the normally energetic 71-year-old Frankston man, who runs his own business with his wife, has been living with his heart only operating at a fifth of its usual capacity.

Earlier this year his surgery for a new valve was deemed semi-urgent, also known as category 2, which meant treatment was recommended within 90 days.

But he has been waiting more than 150 days.

Since his body shut down, Alex has lost more than 30 kilograms, is struggling to keep his small business running and has barely been able to see his grandkids, who live in regional Victoria.

“I can only take about 20 or 40 steps and I have to have a significant rest,” he said.

“Even working on the computer, I can really only do a few hours and then I have to have a rest.”

While waiting for surgery, Alex Stosic is only able to work on his computer in short bursts.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Normally Alex is on the tools in his small business, which specializes in removing scratches from surfaces like glass, but since he fell ill he has only been able to do accounts.

“It certainly limits my lifestyle and limits what I can do,” he said.

A man wearing a cap and a black shirt, smiling with a dog sitting on his lap.
Alex Stosic’s dog Suzie Q barely leaves his side since he got sick.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

The poor state of Alex’s physical health has left him and his wife Maureen basically housebound, which has taken a heavy toll on his mental health and prevented him from seeing his three children and five grandkids as much as he used to.

In Victoria, elective surgery is defined as any necessary surgery that can be delayed for at least 24 hours.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, elective surgery has repeatedly been put on hold to help the state’s health system cope with an influx of cases, which has led to a backlog.

At the beginning of April, the Victorian government announced a $1.5 billion investment package to address that backlog, but as the most recent wave of Omicron ramped up, individual hospitals began deferring all but category 1 cases again.

The latest quarterly data, released today, shows that at the end of June 87,275 people were on the waiting list, slightly down from the three months earlier.

That is due in part to the more than 41,000 elective surgeries conducted during the quarter, almost 50 per cent more than the previous three months.

But the waitlist is dramatically higher — about 21,000 people more — than the same time a year earlier.

And while the hospital waitlist showed small signs of stabilization, other areas of the health system were put under increasing pressure.

Busiest quarter in Ambulance Victoria during ‘unprecedented’ demand

The three-monthly data, released by the government a week later than expected, showed hospital emergency department presentations had risen by 5.1 per cent in the three months to June 30.

That took the number to 486,701 emergency presentations, an increase of more than 23,000 on the last quarter.

The surge is being attributed to a number of factors, including deferred care from lockdowns and a more severe influenza season than previous years.

“What we are seeing in Victoria at the moment is unprecedented demand,” Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas said.

The average stay in hospital also rose, with sicker patients staying in beds for longer.

An ambulance is parked at the Alfred Hospital.
The number of code-1 callouts for paramedics has continued to rise.(AAP: Diego Fedele)

For the third quarter in a row, Ambulance Victoria experienced its busiest three months on record.

Urgent code 1 call-outs rose to 97,982, up by nearly 5,000 on the previous quarter. That’s 16 per cent more than the same period a year earlier.

Only about 64 per cent of those urgent code-1 cases were responded to within the benchmark 15 minutes, a drop on last quarter.

The pressure has led to at least seven code red escalations being called in as many months, in comparison to the nine called between 2017 and 2021.

Authorities have continued to urge Victorians to save triple-0 for emergencies only, with Ambulance Victoria saying about 500 callers each day did not need paramedics.

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