Patient prioritisation methods to shorten waiting times for elective surgery: A systematic review of how to improve access to surgery

Dimuthu Rathnayake*, Mike Clarke, Viraj Jayasinghe

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Background: Concern about long waiting times for elective surgeries is not a recent phenomenon, but it has been heightened by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated measures. One way to alleviate the problem might be to use prioritisation methods for patients on the waiting list and a wide range of research is available on such methods. However, significant variations and inconsistencies have been reported in prioritisation protocols from various specialties, institutions, and health systems. To bridge the evidence gap in existing literature, this comprehensive systematic review will synthesise global evidence on policy strategies with a unique insight to patient prioritisation methods to reduce waiting times for elective surgeries. This will provide evidence that might help with the tremendous burden of surgical disease that is now apparent in many countries because of operations that were delayed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and inform policy for sustainable healthcare management systems.

Methods: We searched PubMed, EMBASE, SCOPUS, Web of Science, and the Cochrane Library, with our most recent searches in January 2020. Articles published after 2013 on major elective surgery lists of adult patients were eligible, but cancer and cancer-related surgeries were excluded. Both randomised and non-randomised studies were eligible and the quality of studies was assessed with ROBINS-I and CASP tools. We registered the review in PROSPERO (CRD42019158455) and reported it in accordance with the PRISMA statement.

Results: The electronic search in five bibliographic databases yielded 7543 records (PubMed, EMBASE, SCOPUS, Web of Science, and Cochrane) and 17 eligible articles were identified in the screening. There were four quasi-experimental studies, 11 observational studies and two systematic reviews. These demonstrated moderate to low risk of bias in their research methods. Three studies tested generic approaches using common prioritisation systems for all elective surgeries in common. The other studies assessed specific prioritisation approaches for re-ordering the waiting list for a particular surgical specialty.

Conclusions: Explicit prioritisation tools with a standardised scoring system based on clear evidence-based criteria are likely to reduce waiting times and improve equitable access to health care. Multiple attributes need to be considered in defining a fair prioritisation system to overcome limitations with local variations and discriminations. Collating evidence from a diverse body of research provides a single framework to improve the quality and efficiency of elective surgical care provision in a variety of health settings. Universal prioritisation tools with vertical and horizontal equity would help with re-ordering patients on waiting lists for elective surgery and reduce waiting times.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0256578
Number of pages19
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2021


  • Medicine and health sciences
  • COVID-19
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Pandemics
  • Humans
  • Waiting Lists
  • Patients
  • Elective Surgical Procedures
  • Databases, Factual


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