Open Access Correspondence

The challenge of long waiting lists: how we implemented a GP referral system for non-urgent specialist' appointments at an Australian public hospital

Lesley A Stainkey13, Isaac A Seidl23, Andrew J Johnson23, Gladys E Tulloch2 and Tilley Pain13*

Author Affiliations

1 Townsville General Practice Network, PO Box 7780, Garbutt BC, QLD 4814, Australia

2 The Townsville Hospital, 100 Angus Smith Drive, Douglas, QLD 4811, Australia

3 School of Medicine and Dentistry, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia

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BMC Health Services Research 2010, 10:303  doi:10.1186/1472-6963-10-303

Published: 4 November 2010


Our Problem

The length of wait lists to access specialist clinics in the public system is problematic for Queensland Health, general practitioners and patients. To address this issue at The Townsville Hospital, the GP Liaison Officer, GPs and hospital staff including specialists, collaborated to develop a process to review patients waiting longer than two years. GPs frequently send referrals to public hospital specialist clinics. Once received, referrals are triaged to Category A, B or C depending on clinical criteria resulting in appointment timeframes of 30, 90 or 365 days for each category, respectively. However, hospitals often fail to meet these targets, creating a long wait list. These wait listed patients are only likely to be seen if their condition deteriorates and an updated referral upgrades them to Category A.

Process to Address the Problem

A letter sent to long wait patients offered two options 1) take no action if the appointment was no longer required or 2) visit their GP to update their referral on a clinic specific template if they felt the referral was still required. Local GPs were advised of the trial and provided education on the new template and minimum data required for specialist referrals.

What Happened

In 2008, 872 letters were sent to long wait orthopaedic patients and 101 responded. All respondents were seen at specially arranged clinics. Of these, 16 patients required procedures and the others were discharged. In 2009 the process was conducted in the specialties of orthopaedics, ENT, neurosurgery, urology, and general surgery. Via this new process 6885 patients have been contacted, 633 patients have been seen by public hospital specialists at specially arranged clinics and 197 have required a procedure.


Since the start of this process in 2008, the wait time to access a specialist appointment has reduced from eight to two years. The process described here is achievable across a range of specialties, deliverable within the routine of the referral centre and identifies the small number of people on the long wait list in need of a procedure.