Multilevel spinal fusion and what’s wrong with the Australian public health system

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Photo by Edward Jenner on

Australia has a fantastic universal health system.  If you’re in an accident, or need cancer treatment, you will get excellent care that won’t bankrupt you.  Much of our health system is free.  Yes, free. 

Well, not really free.  We pay for it via the medicare levy, through the tax system. 

The private health system is something different altogether, but this is about the public health system. People who’ve never been sick sing the praises of the public health system. That’s because they’ve never needed to use it. 

It’s great, in theory. In reality, its under-resourced and the admin sections are staffed by public servants who can’t be fired.  So they can be as rude and as lazy as they like.  That’s problem number one.

Obviously most people aren’t like that. But there are enough of those kind of people to make getting a simple appointment a hellish prospect.

Case in point: My multilevel spinal fusion.

I was a private patient, but my neurosurgeon was ceasing private practice and taking up a position as head of neurosurgery at the public hospital the week following my surgery.

I was promised that my post-op care would be seamless, including the six-month CT and check to ensure that the bones of my spine were fusing properly. 

I paid a small fortune for this surgery, in excess of $12, 000, (yes that’s right) and I am in fact STILL paying it off, in fortnightly instalments.

Had my surgeon remained in private practice, I would have a six week appointment, and then a six month check, along with a CT scan of my lumbar spine to ensure that the four levels were healing and fusing correctly.  All of this is paid for.  Privately. By me.  But because he’s moved to the public health system, my follow up care needs to be handled in the public health system.  He told me I would be fit in, I would not have to wait in line, I would not have to wait because I’ve paid for the service already.

This was a very big surgery, eight hours in total, and the recovery was hard.  I have a rare bone disease, my bone markers are abnormal, and there is a risk that my spine won’t heal properly because of it.  Follow up care is essential.  Otherwise I would have given up by now.

It has just been too freakin’ hard.

My follow up care has been the polar opposite of “seamless”.  My six-week follow-up was fine, it was a phone consult due to COVID-19.  My neurosurgeon reminded me that I needed a CT at six months, and he told me an appointment would be made for me, and I’d receive a letter with a referral for a CT and an appointment date.

Sounds good.

Except that didn’t happen. I received nothing.  September came and went, and then October began, and I decided I better give them a call.  I’d been chasing plenty of other health problems, so this one fell by the wayside. By the time I contacted the public hospital neurosurgery department to ask for an appointment, my follow-up was already two months overdue. 

A lady answered the phone. I politely explained the situation, that I was one of my neurosurgeon’s last private patients, and I was overdue for a followup appointment.

She snapped at me that I would need a referral from my GP.

I told her I’d already sent in the referral, she said that was for my PRIVATE treatment, I was now a PUBLIC patient, and I’d need a new referral.

She said it in such as way as to imply I was a very, very stupid child who couldn’t understand the most basic of concepts. 

I am a very polite person. Hyper-polite.  I know that receptionists are the gatekeepers and if they want to delay or prevent my appointment, they can.  So I very politely said that I’d just seen my GP, and my neurosurgeon told me this would all be arranged for me.

She snapped that the private practice that I’d attended had sent me an email explaining all this. Again with the “you are the stupidest person I have ever spoken to” tone.

I apologised (yes, really I apologised to HER, despite her rudeness) and said I hadn’t received any email, or letter.

She snapped again that I should call them, and she hung up!

Gobsmacked.  Unbelievably rude.  I’d done nothing wrong.  I’d politely requested the appointment that should have been arranged for me.  I was super polite and respectful to her, and she’d treated me like dirt. 

I don’t care how overworked you are, you have no right to treat someone like that.

I called the private practice.  The lady was lovely, and she told me I should not need a referral.  She gave me a different number to call and told me to tell them I was a private patient.

So I called the number. I got a different woman, even more rude than the first.

I explained I needed a follow up appointment with my neurosurgeon, and I was actually almost two months overdue for that check. 

She snapped at me that I need a new referral.  That I would have to get my GP to write the referral, and send it through to her. 

I said I’d just spoken to the private practice, and they’d told me it should not be necessary, and that my neurosurgeon had told me this would be arranged.

She snapped “Well, honey,” dripping sarcasm. “I’m the one who makes the appointments, I’m the one who does the admin, the surgeon doesn’t do the ADMIN, does he?  He has no idea how this works!”

And then she said “You can’t just keep making phonecalls until you get the answer you want!”

OMFG…BITCH!  Again, I am super-polite.  Calm.  Friendly. Smile-in-my-voice stuff. NO matter how hard that is, I keep it light and friendly. Always. 

I said “excuse me?”

And again, politely, told her that I’d been given conflicting information, that I hadn’t received any letters or emails.  That the first lady had TOLD me to call the private practice, and the private practice TOLD me to call back, that I was only doing as I’d been told to do. And all I needed was an appointment that I was overdue for.  I even apologised again,  because this woman was clearly a class A bitch, throwing her weight around in probably the only forum in life that she had any.

Big lady. Torture sick people and make people who are suffering and in pain, make their lives unnecessarily harder.  Nice.  Wonderful person. 

She cut me off and told me that the private practice was supposed to have sent me an email.

I cut her off and again said I never received any email. 

And then she said “And he’s booked up until January, so you won’t be getting an appointment this year.”.

I told her I needed an appointment  that the follow-up is essential and I was already two months overdue.

She was sarcastic, rude and nasty.  She had the power to make this easy or the power to make my life miserable, and she actually made me cry with her nastiness.  All I wanted was an appointment, that should have been arranged.  I honestly expected her to apologise that I’d been overlooked and either make the appointment or tell me nicely how it needed to be arranged.  I didn’t expect or deserve to be snapped at, treated like an idiot, treated like I was some sort of scammer (“You can’t just keep making phone calls until you get the answer you want”), and this woman was the nastiest piece of work I’d come across in a long, long time.  She’s a petty, small person who does an easy job and chooses to use the small power that it conveys to her to screw people around.  I’ve met many people like her, and many of them work in the public health system.

I don’t care how many other people have been rude to you today.  You have NO RIGHT to treat me this way.     

I again apologised for not knowing the correct procedure, but I needed this appointment, and I needed it soon, not next year.  I told her I would email my neurosurgeon direct.

Suddenly she changed her tune. And her tone. 

She attempted to be nicer, and told me that when the referral came through, it would be sent to my neurosurgeon and he would triage it, and let her know when she was to make an appointment for me.  IF he decided that I needed an appointment this year, she would “find a way to fit me in”.  She made it sound like she was doing me a HUGE favour.

I asked for her fax number and told her I would arrange the referral.

She gave me the fax number and said “Make sure you send it to me, because I wouldn’t want it to get lost in the system, and never be seen again.”

I knew right then that she was going to receive my referral and put it at the very bottom of the pile or “lose” it.

WTF.  I had done nothing wrong but she was treating me like shit.  This was her job.  A medical receptionist. Arranging appointments.  Part of her job is to be polite to patients.  Sick people. People who are already in pain.

I gave up.  I contemplated going back to the private practice and asking if another neurosurgeon could handle my follow up care.  But I love my neurosurgeon. He is a prince. And he knows all about my history, my rare bone disease, my RA, my PTSD. He treats me with respect and kindness.  He is the very best doctor I have every consulted, and I’ve seen many. 

So I had to call my GP, who refused to do a referral without an appointment. 

It took two days to get an appointment, at which she agreed to do the referral. She bulk-billed me (which means the appointment was free) which was nice, but it cost me time and energy. Unnecessary time and energy.

I waited a week, then called the neurosurgery department at the hospital to ask if they’d received the referral.

I spoke to the same bitc…er, lady.  She said she’d never received anything.

I KNEW from speaking to her the week before that she would “lose” my referral.  Stupid, nasty bitch.  She told me it would need to be faxed through again.

I had to call my GP back (they had a receipt proving they had sent the referral the week prior) but they agreed to fax it through again.

The following morning the other lady, the one I spoke to originally, called me.  She’d received my referral, and my neurosurgeon had scheduled me for an urgent appointment. 

Ha. That;s why the bitch didn’t call me. She didn’t want to admit that I was “urgent” and that she’d treated me like shit and now she’d have to back down.

It was the 26th of October, and the neurosurgeon said he needed to see me by the end of the month. She had a little grumble about how impossible that was, I wanted to say “well, if your colleague hadn’t purposefully ‘lost’ my referral a week ago, there would have been time.” But I held my tonge. Polite. Always polite, even when I finally had the upper hand.

She continued that I needed to have the CT first, before the appointment.  She told me my neurosurgeon had arranged an appointment for a CT, but I would need to call the CT section to find out when the appointment was, and THEN call her back and she would fit me in for an appointment.


I had to call the CT department, and then call her back.

The CT section is in the medical imaging section of the hospital.  Its about a five-minute walk from where the receptionist in the neurosurgery department was currently sitting.  SHE could very easily have walked down there and found out when the CT was scheduled, and then booked an appointment for me, then called me with both appointment times.  She could even more easily have phoned internally to find out when the CT appointment was.

But no.

I should call the CT section and then call her back.  What bullshit!

But I didn’t have a choice.  I knew if I argue, they’d just lose my referral for another few weeks.

So I called the CT section…on hold for twenty minutes.  Finally get through and get transferred to the CT section…but the line drops out.

Call back again.  Another twenty minutes on hold. Transferred again, only to get an answering machine. I left my details.

I tried again in the afternoon. Same deal, twenty minutes on hold then a voice mail. I didn’t leave my details again, because I know that multiple messages will only piss them off, and they’ll put me on the bottom of the pile

Two days later, I tried AGAIN.  Finally got a person.  She was polite, but said that the appointment hadn’t been made yet, but it had been ordered to be done by the end of October.  That’s three more days. She was flustered, because obviously that isn’t possible and she would have to check with her manager.  But at least she was polite.

She said she would call me back. 

She didn’t call me back. I gave it two more days, and called again. I spoke to her again, and she told me that she didn’t know yet and sorry she’d forgotten and she would definitely get back to me that afternoon.

That was a week ago. It is now the 5th of November, 2020.  I’m still waiting on that call. I give up. 

So far it has taken me three weeks, around 14 phone calls, around two hours cumulatively on hold, I’ve been demeaned and dismissed and treated like an annoying, stupid child, and I STILL do not have an appointment with my neurosurgeon.

Seamless, eh?

Not so much.

And why?  Mostly because of the second receptionist who refuses to help and has a major power complex.  She has actively made this harder for me.  But the other receptionist is also at fault. She should have followed up my CT appointment and then given me the appointment times.  The staff from my neurosurgeon’s rooms have far more sway with the CT section and a much better chance of getting an appointment. 

But they couldn’t give a toss. They are doing a lousy job and are actively making life much harder for me.  Because they feel like it. Nasty, small, petty bitches. 

Not one person in the public system has bothered to do anything to help out the patient.  They all do the bare minimum and have superior attitudes, they make the patient do all the running around, forgetting that they are dealing with SICK people, and they have ridiculous systems and procedures that only serve to make life much, much more difficult. 

So I wait.  There is nothing more I can do.  The lady from CT will never call back.  It’s on me to chase her.  And then get back to the neurosurgery department to beg for an appointment.  And I’m really quite acutely sick at the moment.  I don’t have the energy, especially not when I know I’ll be treated like pond scum.

It sux to be sick. It sux to be in pain. It sux more when the people who are supposed to be helping you, who are in fact being well-paid to help you, treat you like dirt and actively put road blocks in your way.

I suspect in three days I’ll get a phone call berating me for not turning up to a CT appointment that no one told me I had. 

And that, my dear friends, is how the public health system works.  Note: this isn’t the first time I’ve been stuck in an endless loop because no one is willing to do their job.  It’s the umpteenth.  I’m just writing this one out, because next week I’ll be THREE months overdue for my follow-up and will have spend the last month trying to organise it.



  1. I have to say that our public (free paid for in National insurance payments at source of earnings), is quite smooth running in comparison. I’ve never had to do all the running around and make all the calls here in the UK. I’m not saying it’s not underfunded, it is, and somethings things take time or get lost but normally all referrals are done by the GP/Consultant themselves and we just get the apts in the post or over the phone. I do know that without the NHS (National Health Service), I’d be totally screwed as would millions of others with chronic illness etc. I’m sorry you’ve had such a run of crap with these receptionists on a power trip. That’s just spiteful in my opinion.
    I do know one thing, I’d take this system over private healthcare any day, I have no choice I could never ever afford it.


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