Archaic Health Services in Australia? Another Visit to the Doctor

Some time ago a reader called Shaun posted several comments on my website listing all the reasons why he returned to Europe after just five months of living in New South Wales.

Clearly Australia didn’t work out for him and his family, and he wanted to warn others of the potential dangers of a move down under.

He provided lots of information about the kinds of things he was unhappy with here in Australia, including the remark “…poor medical model, looks good to the layman, but to senior healthcare professional like myself it’s bordering archaic…

It’s difficult for me to argue with that claim as the statement itself suggests only a senior healthcare professional can truly understand the state of Australia’s medical model.

As a layman though, I sure can explain how it looks from my point of view.

Australian health services archaic?

Doctor ArchaicThis is a true story of what happened to me recently. It all began very late on the night of Saturday 25th of July this year. At about midnight, I noticed that my left arm had started to ache.

I had no idea why, so it was a little disconcerting.

A couple of hours later the pain had increased quite dramatically, to the extent where I took a painkiller that had previously been prescribed to me by my doctor for a shoulder problem that I have.

Yes, I’m currently going through the ‘falling apart years’.

These were strong painkillers, you only need one every 24 hours. I went to bed, but the pain continued and I couldn’t sleep. I got up at around 5 o’clock in the morning, paced around a bit, and took another one of those ‘once in every 24 hours’ painkillers.

Finally got to sleep at about 8 o’clock in the morning. Lucky it was Sunday.

When I eventually got up on Sunday the constant pain had gone, but there was clearly something wrong with my arm and certain movements made me yelp.

Here’s how it went from then on in through the Australia health system:

  • Monday morning, first thing, rang the doctor for an appointment
  • Appointment given for 11 AM the same morning
  • Appointment goes ahead on time, my doctor requests ultrasound on the arm and an x-ray of my left shoulder are
  • As soon as I got home, which would have been just before midday, I telephoned the nearest Queensland Diagnostic Imaging department to where I live for an appointment.

Similar to, but not exactly, this one…

The X-Ray Shop.

  • I explained that I really wanted a same day appointment, if possible, as I had been selected for jury service over the next two weeks (that’s another story) and would only know on a day-to-day basis whether I would be needed in court or not
  • They said if I couldn’t get an appointment in any of the other two imaging departments within 30 minutes’ drive of my house, to just turn up at their place after 1 o’clock and they would ‘fit me in’
  • I couldn’t get an appointment elsewhere, so I did turn up at 1 o’clock, and I was walking out with my x-ray and my ultrasound images under my arm by 2:15 PM
  • Luckily at 5 PM I discover I’m not required in court the next day either, so I booked a follow-up appointment with my doctor for 12:30 PM on Tuesday
  • By 1:20 PM I was back home again and my problem had been diagnosed as ‘tenosynovitis of the bicep tendon’

Suggested treatment; anti-inflammatories for a few weeks and if it doesn’t get better, consider an ultrasound guided steroid injection into the left bicep’s tendon sheath.

The doctor also wrote out a prescription for that injection in case I needed it; I haven’t used it yet.

How much did all this cost?

I had to pay for two visits to the doctors at $82 per visit. Medicare though gave me a refund of $37.05 for each of those visits, so net they cost me $45 each.

There was no charge to me for the x-ray or the ultrasound.

Total cost all in, $90.

Do bear in mind an important point here. I could use a ‘bulk billing doctor’ in which case the cost to me would have been zero. You can read more about bulk billing here…

I like my doctor though, I think he’s very good, so I’m happy to stick with him and pay the extra. It is also possible that if I did switch to a bulk billing doctor, they would be busier and therefore it would probably be more difficult to book appointments at such short notice.


It’s hard to imagine how that would have panned out in the UK. I would have either had to go private to receive that sort of speedy treatment, in which case the costs would, I’m sure, have soared dramatically.

Or I could have waited for free NHS ultrasounds and x-rays in which case I believe the timescale would have been vastly extended.

Or, I imagine I could have just turned up at A and E and queued up for the ultrasound and x-ray if it was felt to be urgent enough, but if I had done that, I’m pretty sure the waiting time would have been exhausting.

I mean several to many hours. It’s hard for me to know for sure, I haven’t used the NHS since 2007.

The way I see it though, and yes, I am only a layman, there is nothing archaic with the Australian medical model.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Nick March 18, 2016, 11:42 pm | Link

    I am amazed about all those success stories which unfortunately I can’t apply to me or any of my family. Let me tell you my story. I live in Cairns, by the way.
    I don’t have private insurance, I always use everything that’s medicare covered. Probably few years ago I had an accident by lifting a heavy weight-something fractured in my spine. I was overseas at the time, and doctors here told that this condition is uncurable and will stay for life. After a few years of living with painkillers, I decided that it is enough, and saw my bulk billing doctor. He sent for Xrays, which showed almost nothing serious, so I was prescribed for another round of painkillers.
    After one months when those new painkillers also stoped working, here I am again to the same doctor. I demanded for MRI, but it is not covered by Medicare, so I paid $250. Next week results came in and they showed three discs degenerated and two of them were fractured and leaking, causing inflammation and pain.
    So from here the fun begins.

    Doctor said that this condition is not curable and suggested me to quit my job and go on a cronic disease pension(I am 41 y.o) and get a social housing(because without job I won’t be able to pay rent). I of course considered this as a nonsense. Looking up on internet I found that there could be some steroid injections done to eliminate pain and inflammation. I went back to the doctor and requested this. He sent an email to then hospital and said now I need to wait.

    After waiting for 5 months, I heard nothing and went back to him, stressing that my condition highly deteriorated and I can’t sit or bend already. He said that I the reason I waited for 5 months and heard nothing from them is that I must have been on the non urgent list. They determine this by reading what the doctor wrote to them. This time I told him to write more aggressively. Surprisingly, after just 6 weeks, I got a letter confirming my appointment with the neurosurgeon, which will come to Cairns after 4 weeks from Townsville. I was surprised Cairns do not have any neurosurgeons.

    So here we go-after those 4 weeks I took the day off from work and after waiting for 3 hours, I saw a real doctor. He looked at my MRI and said surgery would only harm me even more and prescribed me steroid injection. After another 4 weeks I got a letter, which said that my next appointment to see a specialist is after another 4 weeks. Ok, I already got used to it.

    So when time came, I again took a day off and went to see a doctor which will be holding a needle. He asked many questions is order to determine whether I need this kind of treatment, despite neurosurgeon already stated that I do. I insisted as well and finally got ok for steroid injection. I was a bit in mood that finally this nightmare of waiting will end soon, but it not. After 2 weeks from this visit, I got another letter saying that after another 4 weeks(what a magic number) I have to come and register for day surgery. Another day of work. I sat down of about 5 hours near reception, got a thousand pages of application forms, filled them in and of I go. I was told to wait for another letter. This time I waited only 1 week and got a letter, which stated that my day surgery will be after another 2 weeks.

    I took two days off and finally got a needle in my back. The next month after steroid injection the pain actually increased significantly, but I was told it is normal. After about 6 weeks from injection one day I got up and here you go-no pain at ALL. It was like I was newborn. I lived 5 years with it and it was something amazing, life got back to, I started thinking about opening by own business, I was in full strength. But that lasted not for long.
    5 months passed and pain started again. Slowly, increased but I understood that I need to sing the same song again.

    The timeline is a follows-after first visit to a GP I had to wait about 12 months to get an injection. The costs were-$250 for MRI. That’s all. Now that I know how difficult is to get to the hospital, even if pain is only mild, I’ll go and request another injection. By the time I get it, the effects of previous one already be gone.

    I understood that only if you have a condition that can be cured by tablets-only then everything works fast-you go to GP, do xrays or MRI’s at your convenient time and get prescription from GP. But if you need appointment with real doctor-expect to wait months and years. By the time you get it, you can be dead.

    I don’t know maybe everything could have worked faster if I went through A&E.

    Sorry for not being able to share a success story, but to me Australian health care is truly archaic. I lived in Europe before coming here and even here in public system you can get appointment with a specialist in days, and surgery in weeks, not months and years.

    But despite this, I enjoy living in Cairns. For the healthy people it is a good country to live.

    • BobinOz March 20, 2016, 11:43 pm | Link

      Well, you and I appear to have had vastly different experiences with the health service. I have absolutely no idea why everything has taken so long for you when for me everything moved very quickly. It’s bewildering why you had to wait 12 months for a simple injection.

      It doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe our health service works better in the capital cities and not so good regionally, but that’s no excuse. You should have had better and quicker treatment than you got.

  • Frank Gilling September 2, 2015, 10:48 pm | Link

    Bob, I pay about $300 per month. My wife whinges about the outlay…until one of us needs medical attention. This year I also had a colonoscopy which again meant seeing a specialist and a hospital visit including time in theatre, recovery and a meal.Constant care by the staff, I paid the $400 excess or co-payment as it is known plus a portion of the specialist fee. I expect physio will continue for up to 6 months but at some point the health fund contribution will cease. The idea of insurance is it is there when needed. Some people like to spend their money on other things. I look after my health first. I do not believe there is a universal free healthcare anywhere in the world. At some point we all have to pay, one way or another. Basically as Popeye used to say, “ya gets what ya pay for”.Cheers

    • BobinOz September 3, 2015, 6:39 pm | Link

      Yes, indeed, at some point you have to pay. The NHS may look like it’s free, but taxpayers money funds it.

      I just want to point out, your $300 covers your family, so $3600 a year, about £1800, not a huge amount, I think you get it back in time saved alone.

      Thanks Frank, you’ve given us lots of good stuff here.

  • Ronny September 2, 2015, 6:17 pm | Link

    Hi there,

    Being a health professional myself, I would not be partial but the truth is, in a matter of surgery, the less you wait, the quicker you recover.
    Having that said, the main difference in the public/state system compared to private is the fettering, not the qualifications. What I mean is when you go in the public system everything sounds confined : you go in the ambulance, they do a first check and give it to the A&E hospital reception. Then a new assessment of your status is made and given to the main nurse. This one puts you in a row and then the on-call doctor (often junior) makes another check, he calls the supervisor, who makes the final assessment and forwards his conclusions to a liaison intendant (a health allied who looks for a bed to keep the inpatient). Then a junior specialist comes to see you, makes a new assessment, and finally the senior consultant decides whether it’s too late or too early in the night to operate and puts you on the next day program (at the end of this program, of course).
    This happens in ALL countries, that’s the way it is. Whereas, the private health system skips most of the intermediates and this shortens drastically the timeline.

    Considering the price paid, this is really something to consider individually (and regularly) when you subscribe for a private health insurance.


    • BobinOz September 3, 2015, 4:41 pm | Link

      I think I understood what you’re saying Ronny, sounds like what we have going on here is a good thing. It certainly seems good to me and it makes sense that the sooner you get everything looked at, the sooner you can be on the road to recovery.

      Cheers, Bob

  • J.Frost September 2, 2015, 7:32 am | Link

    Wow either case sound fantastic compared with the UK equivalents. I have high praise in general for the NHS and when you need them for the serious stuff they are spot on but for things in between be prepared to wait. Roughly a year ago I broke my foot after slipping at work. Dragged myself ( literally) from taxi to a & e and sat for 3hrs and 55 mins (just below the guidelines I might add) in excruciating pain to be seen by doctor to be then sent to wait for an xray for another hour. Waited again for another hour to be seen and told the news and advised non displaced so take pain relief and off you go. No repeat checks, no physio advice etc, out the door in under 7 hours with no drugs! I have no doubt the teams were working on more serious cases than mine but still not much fun. All free of course! Private health care is unaffordable for your average family and there is no in between to speak of. Hope your arm is improving Bob.

    • BobinOz September 2, 2015, 4:36 pm | Link

      Yes, my arm is getting better, thanks for asking.

      I have a lot of respect for the NHS as well, but the waiting is hard to deal with. You spent 7 hours in there, last time I went I think I was in there for about 10 hours. I’d much rather pay a bit of $$ and get seen quick, and that’s what I can do here.

      What we have here, I think, is the ‘in between’ that you mention that you don’t have.

  • Frank Gilling September 1, 2015, 7:10 am | Link

    Hi Bob, I would like to echo and back up your comments. On Sunday morning 2nd August I fell from my bicycle and was taken by ambulance to the hospital. I was seen within minutes, pain relief injections given and xrays taken. I broke my wrist…badly. I was given pain medication to take home and was home shortly after lunch. Next day I had an appointment with a surgeon who ordered an MRI. Within an hour we had the results and an appointment for surgery on 5th August. On 6th August I was fitted with a splint and sent home. For personal reasons I had to be in Sydney for a month so needed follow up care. I chose a local bulk billing doctor who saw me the same day and prescribed pain relief. After two weeks they removed the bandages and sutures. The same day I was given an appointment for phsyiotherapy and have been going twice weekly since. No drama, easy to make appointments. Costs are a different story but the xrays and MRi cost nothing, the bulk billing doctor costs nothing. The aneasthesiologist cost me nothing. My meds are subsidised. My hospital stay and the surgeon cost me a good deal but I had the best surgeon on the Gold Coast and have been given great care at all times.My phsyio costs me but I believe some of my out of pocket expenses may be tax deductible. I am still in pain but that is diminishing. Archaic? I hardly think so. I shudder to think of waiting to be seen every step of the way. I return to the Gold Coast this weekend and already have an appointment with the surgeon on Monday and my local phsyio the same day. BTW I am typing this one handed.

    • BobinOz September 1, 2015, 4:31 pm | Link

      Sounds like you’ve received pretty fast and efficient service Frank, not archaic at all is it? My experience suggest it’s not as well.

      Most of your stuff was free, but you have clearly paid for an op, many of my readers will be interested to know why and how much.

      You don’t have to say, but can you tell us if you were offered a free option if you were prepared to wait? Or did you have insurance that covered some of the costs of the private op?

      Actually, it’s not my readers, it’s me being nosey 🙂

      • Frank Gilling September 2, 2015, 6:54 am | Link

        Hi Bob, OK. I am still in Sydney and do not have all my accounts to hand so will give you an idea of what it cost although somewhat inaccurate.
        From the start the ambulance asked if I had private health. They could take me to the Gold Coast public hospital where I would be assessed and then wait. I could wait hours, sitting in a waiting room OR I could go private. Although I did wait a little I was looked after, constant checking and given sandwiches and tea between xrays and a temporary cast etc.All that time I was made comfortable on a gurney and had warm blankets.I was not sitting, in agony in a waiting room. Actually I went into shock early when I arrived. There was a cost most of which my health fund covered and I paid about $200,
        Private surgeon cost $200 for consultation. The surgery fee was $2500 of which I paid $1595. I paid $400 excess on the hospital bill which included theatre costs, meals, overnight care, pain relief injections etc. I have no idea of total costs.
        Physio costs $75 per visit and after my health fund covers the rest… about $26 I pay $49.
        Medication is mostly covered by PBS and my pension so I pay a maximum of $6.10 per prescription.
        Local doctor is bulk billed.
        I estimate without my health fund and government assistance I would have paid $7000.
        If I had gone public I would have waited a lot longer to be seen, had no choice of surgeon, may have waited longer for surgery and again had no choice of physio and could not transfer to another state easily, would need to visit the local hospital for physio but still would have some out of pocket expenses.I would be worse off mentally.

        • BobinOz September 2, 2015, 4:10 pm | Link

          Thanks for this Frank, sounds like you had a choice, you could have got free treatment, but you would have had to wait. Or you could go private, get sorted quicker, but have to pay.

          You went for the private option. Because you have a health fund, or as I would call it, health insurance, you ended up paying about $2450 instead of more than $7000 and you were all fixed up pretty good and very fast.

          Is that a fair summary?

          Just leaves on last question, how much do you pay each month for your health fund?

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