Background: Long surgical waiting lists are common and receive serious consideration. To evaluate the positive and negative effects of waiting lists, insight into the consequences of waiting is needed. The present study aims to assess what insight the current literature provides into the effects of delayed surgery for varicose veins, inguinal hernia in adults, gallstones, and breast cancer in terms of physical, psychological and social aspects. Methods: Searches of Medline and Embase, for the period January 1985-September 2003, were performed to identify articles providing direct or indirect insight into the consequences of waiting for surgery for each disorder. Reference lists of retrieved reports were examined for relevant articles. Results: Seven studies were identified with direct data on consequences of delay in elective surgery. Relevant indirect data were found in 32 reports. Results indicated that delayed varicose vein surgery or inguinal hernia repair involves marginal physical, psychological or social suffering, and that severe deterioration is unlikely. The impact of delayed cholecystectomy seems more profound by suffering on all three health aspects. Complications while waiting do occur, with a higher risk for patients with previous complications. Longer delays for breast cancer surgery seem to adversely affect prognosis, although it is unclear which interval is associated with such an effect. Moreover, having breast cancer undoubtedly affects psychological health. Conclusions: There is a remarkable paucity of studies addressing the consequential impact of waiting for elective surgery on patients' health for each of the four studied disorders. Current literature permits merely general estimation of this consequential impact. As specific assessment of these consequences is important for daily practice and for policy, further research is required.