“But there is still more that can be done to ensure Australia has a safe and adequate supply of healthcare professionals.”
Why is there such a big shortage?
Peter Breadon, director of the Grattan Institute’s health and aged care program, said Australia’s health workforce problem did not stem from raw numbers.
“All these problems [with major shortages] is real. But it’s about the structure of the system and how you manage it… not how many workers there are,” he said.
The first major problem is that the number of doctors in the areas most in need is very few.
“There are major shortages in many rural and remote areas, but also in most cities,” Breadon said.
The second is the bureaucracy that hinders health practitioners from working according to their capacities. For example, nurses say they can do more to screen patients, perform health checks, help people organize their care and manage issues like injuries.
“We didn’t make the most of it [their skills] compared to other countries. Nurses and pharmacists have fewer jobs than overseas, and administrative support for general practitioners is not as abundant as in other countries,” said Breadon.
There are also discrepancies regarding required workers, such as nurse-midwives and psychiatrists, while additional complications stem from Australia’s changing disease burden.
“On average, people are expected to live almost an extra year in poor health today, compared to 20 years ago,” Breadon said.
Chronic disease and aging mean that the number of health workers must continue to grow faster than the population.
Other factors affecting the health workforce include burnout and a long-term tendency towards part-time work. The prolonged impact of the pandemic – from delays to delayed treatment, mental health problems and lingering COVID-19 – is another impact.
Where is the biggest drawback?
The city center is generally well served. The most recent census data shows there are 5.9 general practitioners per 1000 people in inner Perth, 4.5 in inner Brisbane, and almost 3.6 in inner Sydney and Melbourne.
In north-west Melbourne, however, it drops to just 1.2 GPs per 1000 people, while in the NSW region, the Hunter Valley and Murray regions have only 1.3 GPs per 1000 people.
There are also four regions in Australia where there are no psychiatrists. North Sydney has 173 psychiatrists for a population of 424,000. But Blacktown, in Sydney’s west, only houses 16 psychiatrists for just over 400,000 people.
The gap persists for clinical psychologists, creating a huge access gap as Australians experience increasing levels of pressure.
Inner Melbourne has 2.9 clinical psychologists per 1,000 people – or 1,761 professionals for a population of 617,000. However, Shepparton in Victoria only has 0.3 clinical psychologists per 1000 people.
How is this problem solved?
Getting more doctors, nurses and psychologists to where they are needed, ensuring they are fully utilized and ensuring labor pipelines remain strong will be some of the government’s key challenges.
Fletcher said a number of things had happened to boost numbers, such as cutting the time needed to assess applications for Australian registration, increasing testing venues for internationally qualified nurses and making English language requirements more flexible.
“We work closely with governments and employers to identify areas of special need, which allows us to improve registration applications where critical health worker vacancies need to be addressed,” he said.
Health Secretary Mark Butler said the government was also working to increase the number of domestic workers. There has been an increase of 2,600 Commonwealth supported places to train nurses, and 92,000 free TAFE courses for the nursing sector.
“We need to continue to expand our workforce as population grows and demand for healthcare services. The government has made many efforts to do this,” said Breadon. “But we need other reforms [also].”
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