Objective: The aim of this study was to calculate the societal economic burden of shoulder pain in patients on the orthopaedic waiting list at an Australian public hospital and calculate the cost (from the government's perspective) of care delivered by the hospital for those patients. Methods: A cost-of-illness analysis was undertaken in a cohort of 277 orthopaedic patients on the Gold Coast in Australia. Outcomes included a health care costs and impacts questionnaire, work absenteeism, presenteeism questionnaires (Work Limitations Questionnaire (WLQ) and Work Productivity and Activity Impairment Questionnaire (WPAI)) and hospital care provision over a 2-year period. Results: The mean societal cost of healthcare and domestic support was AU$20.72 per day (AU$7563 annually) per patient on the orthopaedic waiting list. When absenteeism and presenteeism were included, the cost per patient who was employed was AU$38.04 per day (AU$13 885 annually) calculated with the WLQ and AU$61.31 per day (AU$22 378 annually) calculated with the WPAI. The mean per-patient cost to government of public hospital care was AU$2622 in Year 1 and AU$3835.78 (s.d. 4961.28) over 2 years. The surgical conversion rate was 22%, and 51% of hospital care cost was attributable to outpatient services. Conclusions: Public orthopaedic shoulder waiting lists create a large economic burden for society; few referrals require surgery and just over half the hospital care costs are for out-patient services. New models of care that better manage shoulder pain and identify surgical candidates before orthopaedic referral could reduce this burden. What is known about the topic?: Little is known about the cost of shoulder pain in Australia, or the cost of patients referred for public orthopaedic care. What does this paper add?: This article quantifies the costs of shoulder pain and the value of lost production from shoulder pain. The time spent waiting for public hospital orthopaedic appointments and the costs associated with waiting demonstrate that the time spent on a waiting list is a key driver of the economic burden. What are the implications for practitioners?: Greater resourcing to reduce public orthopaedic shoulder waiting lists may be helpful, but system change is also required. Earlier and more accurate identification of surgical cases could reduce inefficient referrals and improve hospital productivity. Collaboration between clinicians and policy makers is needed to design more economically efficient shoulder care.