July 19, 2013

Health care – Australia’s biggest employer

According to the 2011 Census, the Health Care and Social Assistance industry is now Australia’s biggest employer. The Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association’s Andrew McAuliffe discusses increasing demand, unequal growth and opportunities for innovation.

According to the 2011 Census, the Health Care and Social Assistance industry is now Australia’s biggest employer with a workforce of 1.3 million, or 11.4 percent of the total number of people employed. By comparison, the Retail Trade employs 10.9 percent, Construction 9.1 percent and Manufacturing 8.6 percent.

“The ageing of the population is certainly adding to the demand for health services but recent research has shown that consumption is increasing across the board,” says Andrew McAuliffe, Senior Director, Policy & Networks, Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association. “This is due to factors such as the growing incidence of chronic diseases like diabetes and also changing expectations as to what medicine can achieve.”

While demand is increasing across Australia, most of the supply growth has occurred in metropolitan and large regional centres – there are still significant shortages of specific providers such as dentists, allied health workers, doctors and nurses in rural and remote areas. There’s also an imbalance between supply and demand in particular speciality areas while, in aged care, the challenge of addressing the growing demand is exacerbated by a discrepancy in pay levels, particularly for nursing staff. “If you’re a nurse working in an aged care facility you’ll be paid less than if you were working in a hospital,” says McAuliffe.

There’s also a problem of ageing within the workforce as the age profile within the healthcare sector reflects that of the wider population. According to research company IBIS world, Australia’s population, currently hovering around 22.8 million, is forecast to grow by 1.6 percent per annum to reach 27.8 million by 2025. At the same time, our average life expectancy is creeping close to 82 years and our median age has risen to 37.1, up from 36.9 in 2010.

So what can be done to cope with increasing demand?

“There’s potential for innovation by expanding the role of some practitioners,” McAuliffe continues. “For example, we’re already seeing nurse practitioners and practice nurses taking on a greater range of responsibilities for service provision. At the recent Rural Health Conference there was a lot of discussion around the potential for using more specialist generalists in areas where there’s limited access to providers.”

We can also expect innovation in terms of technology. “The introduction of the National Broadband Network (NBN) will certainly have an impact,” says McAuliffe. “This is likely to be felt most strongly in rural and remote areas where an increasing number of services can be provided by technology. This goes beyond talking to your doctor using Skype. For example, remote monitoring means that people don’t have to travel to hospital to have their blood pressure taken, and Point of Care Testing machines can provide a good, fast analysis of a blood sample so it doesn’t have to be sent to a pathology laboratory.”

He acknowledges that funding will be a challenge. “Health is a rationing game,” he says. “There’s always the question of how can we balance the increasing cost of technology with the limited resources that are available?”

As IBIS world General Manager (Australia) Karen Dobie says: “It’s apparent that the coming decade will be one of rising demands on health care and also new challenges for the economy.”