Ensuring a sustainable, skilled and flexible workforce to meet Australia’s healthcare needs now and into the future is one of the most important challenges facing the new Health Minister, Peter Dutton, according to health policy analyst Jennifer Doggett.

In the article below she previews the forthcoming Health Workforce Australia conference, to be held in Adelaide from November 18-20, which she will cover the conference for the Croakey Conference Reporting Service. 

Jennifer Doggett writes:

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After five weeks in the job, Australia’s new Health Minister has revealed little about his plans for the health system.  Peter Dutton’s public statements thus far have expressed support for individual issues – mental health, physiotherapy, medical research – but have not articulated an overall vision or identified any specific goals for his Ministry.

It is understandable that the new Minister is taking his time in deciding which particular pressing health system issue he will tackle first in his new role.

Despite six years of reform, there are still many unresolved issues he could choose from.  These include the increasing incidence of chronic disease, high rates of preventable illness and disability, the poor health of Indigenous Australians and inequities of access to care across our geographically and socially diverse society.

Improving our performance in any one of these issues is a daunting task requiring strong leadership, political nous and collaboration across different sectors of government.

However, the new Minister may be encouraged to know that there is one underlying strategy that will support action in any one (or all) of these areas.  This strategy is to promote a skilled and flexible health workforce with the capacity to meet the community’s needs for care.

Australia’s health workforce is the health system’s greatest resource and a crucial factor in meeting the health care challenges facing our community. If we get our health workforce right we will go a long way towards meeting the challenges identified above.

Conversely, if we get workforce policy wrong, all our other strategies and programs in the health area will have little chance of success.

Health Workforce Australia (HWA) is the peak national body responsible for future planning for the health workforce, It was established in 2010 by the Council of Australian Governments to address workforce shortages and growing demands for healthcare caused by an ageing population, growth in chronic disease and increased community expectations.

To progress the issues raised above, HWA is focussing on building and sustaining a flexible health workforce at its national conference next month. The conference Skilled and Flexible – the health workforce for Australia’s future will run in Adelaide from 18-20 November

HWA’s goal is to build a sustainable health workforce that meets the healthcare needs of all Australians now and in the future. The conference supports this role by exploring many of the issues facing health professionals, policy makers and experts working in the health sector.

Specifically, the conference seeks to answer the following questions:

  • How Australia can get enough health professionals to provide the care our communities need?
  • How we can use the skills and expertise of health workers in a smarter way to improve job satisfaction, retention, recruitment and, ultimately, our health workforce’s overall productivity?
  • How we can improve distribution across health professions, specialties, jurisdictions and geographic locations so Australians can get the care they need, no matter where they are?
  • How we can use research, data analysis and evaluation to build an evidence base for national health workforce innovation and reform?

These questions are addressed over three days with optional pre-conference master classes and workshops on the Monday. This will be followed by the main plenary and concurrent stream sessions running from Tuesday 19 to Wednesday 20 November.

During these three days local and international leaders will share their best practices, knowledge and expertise in workforce innovation. Topics covered at these sessions include:

  • an expanded role for physiotherapists in EDs which is improving both patient care and health workforce productivity;
  • HWA’s Extended Care Paramedics project which is also improving productivity and patient outcomes;
  • the use of assistants in the health workforce, including aged care and nursing assistants;
  • the pioneering use of robots providing emotional support to clients in aged care facilities;  and
  • the ‘My Quitbuddy’ app which is helping more than 200,000 smokers kick the habit.

More than 50 local and international leaders will explore the latest ideas on leadership, innovation and workforce reform over the three-day conference program.

A highlight will be the return visit of Dr Joshua Tepper from Canada to report on progress in increasing care provided in rural and remote areas of Canada. He enthused audiences at a HWA event in 2011 with his dynamic presentation and his visit to the Conference this year is highly anticipated.

Other international experts speaking at the conference include Rob Goffee, Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Gareth Jones, Fellow of the Centre for Management Development, both from the London Business School. Their initial plenary session will focus on authentic leaders and authentic organisations and will challenge participants to identify and support leaders throughout the health system.

Also visiting from Europe is Agneta Jansmyr, CEO, Jönköping County Council, in Sweden who will present a session on Human resources for health: Providing better care while containing costs.

The role of assistants in the health system is a key focus of the conference. Local experts Jim Buchan and Karen Cook, Specialist Advisors to Health Workforce Australia, will run a session called ‘Working smarter: Are assistants a solution to our workforce shortages?

Another presentation by a group from Tasmania – Extending the scope of paramedics in providing care – will provide examples of how paramedics can be used to treat people in their homes and prevent hospital admission.

Mental health, aged care and allied health are all addressed throughout the Conference with a number of sessions reporting successful outcomes from trial or pilot programs.  These presentations provide a snapshot of what Australia’s health system might look like in the future if these smaller scale projects are adopted at the national level.

The final plenary session of the conference will be a panel discussion on Closing the Gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health with Greg Craven, Deputy Chair, Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Reform Council, Adrian Carson, CEO, Institute for Urban Indigenous Health
and Dr Tim Senior, Medical Advisor, RACGP Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Faculty.  These speakers all have widespread experience and a strong commitment to addressing this important issue.  In this interactive session, panel members will provide practical ideas for how we can reduce the current life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The HWA Conference offers a diverse and stimulating program that would be of interest to anyone working in the health sector, whether as a health care practitioner, policy maker, health service manager or even a Health Minister!

For more information and to register go to the conference website. Note: Registrations close on 1 November.

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Peter Fray
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