Australian Health Directory

Health professionals in demand

The health workforce in Australia

In 2006, the Australian health and community services industry employed nearly 800,000 people. It is the fourth largest employing industry in Australia with 9.7% of the total workforce.

Female workers represent close to 75% of the total employed in the industry and over 17% of the total Australian female workforce. More than a third of the workforce works in a part-time capacity.

Health workers are unevenly distributed across Australia. The number of health workers per 100,000 population decreases with increasing distance from major metropolitan areas. In 2006, there were 2,441 health workers per 100,000 population in capital city areas and 2,200 health workers per 100,000 population outside these areas.

Australian Health Ministers' Advisory Council (2007). Health Workforce Information Clearing House (13 August 2007)

Global movement of health workers

Health systems in many industrialized countries, especially English-speaking countries, depend heavily on doctors and nurses who have been trained abroad. In Australia , Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, close to 25% of doctors have been imported from other countries.

Global supply and demand tensions over the next ten years are likely to maintain inter-country movements of health workers.

There are many factors that influence which country health professionals and other health industry workers desire to work in. Some of these are:

  • income inequalities between countries
  • differences in working conditions (including safety and security)
  • career opportunities
  • political environment and stability
  • economic development
  • geophysical environment
  • differences between public and private sector working conditions
  • incentives by recruiters and governments

While health workers contribute to the economies of their counties of origin by repatriating some of their income, developed countries must invest more into training to prevent the 'brain drain' of health workers from developing countries, where they are desperately needed.

The global health workforce

The distribution of health workers is uneven throughout the world. The differences are particularly pronounced between developed and developing countries and between cities and rural areas. Many countries, predominantly in Africa and Asia, are at crisis point as a result of chronic shortages of health professionals.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that at least 2,360,000 health service providers and 1,890,000 management support workers, or a total of 4,250,000 additional health workers, are needed to fill the supply and demand gap globally.

WHO considers the following to be important requirements for the effective management of health workforce shortages:

  • Increased investment in education and training;
  • National health workforce plans (political leadership and commitment of the necessary funds);
  • More efficient use of existing human resources (including re-delegation of some of the tasks to less qualified but well supervised workers);
  • Protection and fairer treatment of health workers (improved working conditions and pay);
  • Access to HIV prevention and treatment for health workers in affected countries;
  • Attraction of retired health workers back to work;
  • Comprehensive preparedness for a workforce response to outbreaks and emergencies in every country;
  • Career incentives to attract health workers to rural and disadvantaged areas;
  • Health promotion and prevention strategies to reduce demand for health services.

World Health Organisation (2007). (13 August 2007)

Health workforce management initiatives by Australian governments

Australian governments have been active in managing health workforce issues. Major initiatives include:

  • In 2004, Australian Health Ministers have adopted a National Health Workforce Strategic Framework. The framework serves as a guide for Australian health workforce policy, health workforce development, education and training for the period 2004-2014.

Australian Health Ministers’ Conference (2004), National Health Workforce Strategic Framework, Sydney

  • The Australian Government has asked the Productivity Commission to report on the issues impacting on the health workforce and propose solutions applicable to the next 10 years. The report, Australia's Health Workforce, was released in January 2006.

  • "In 2006 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to a significant package of reforms for the health workforce including: the establishment of a task force to undertake project-based work and advise on workforce innovation and reform; a national process of the assessment of overseas trained doctors; the development of single national registration and accreditation scheme for health professionals; processes for better engagement with the education and training sectors on health workforce and supply; substantial increase in Commonwealth funded medical training; and tertiary training places and a commitment by States and Territories to provide clinical training opportunities for them."

Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC) Health Workforce Principal Committee, Inaugural National Health Workforce Strategic Forum (3 May 2007). (13 August 2007)