Will retiring baby boomers leave gaps in healthcare?

More than a third of Australia’s general practitioners, nurses and specialists are over the age of 50, so what will happen when they all retire? Dr Henry Cutler, Director, Head of Health Economics at KPMG, discusses possible skills shortages and ways to ameliorate any emerging problems.

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For 40 years the health labour force has been growing at a much faster rate than the population – between the 2001 and 2006 censuses the relative increases were 22.8 and 6.6 percent. But even that may not be enough. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports mounting pressure from an ageing population and also an ageing healthcare workforce. In 2011, over one-third of all general practitioners (GPs), specialists and nurses were aged 50 years and over.

“We’re certainly at the start of a wave of retirements but I don’t think we’re heading for a crisis,” says Dr Henry Cutler, Director, Head of Health Economics at KPMG. “Overall, for every one person retiring from the healthcare workforce we currently have 1.2 entering.”

However, as the workforce is not homogenous, specific skills may be in short supply. “Over the last four or five years there’s been a significant increase in the number of specialists being trained so I don’t think we’ll see any serious problems in that area,” he says. “But the fast-growing demand for nurses in residential aged care facilities could be harder to manage. Some are already struggling to fill vacancies because it’s hard for them to match the wages and conditions offered in other workplaces. This discrepancy has been receiving some attention over the past year but I think we need an even greater commitment to improving conditions for nurses in this area.”

Attracting skills to rural Australia

Rural and remote areas of Australia are already struggling to recruit GPs and other health professionals. A surge in the number of retirements could exacerbate the problem.

“Many factors influence the decision to move out of a city,” says Cutler. “It can be much harder to relocate to a rural environment if you have a family and some GPs are concerned that limited opportunities for ongoing training could hamper their career. As older GPs leave their practices we need to think carefully how we can create a package of incentives to attract suitable replacements.”

Telehealth could help overcome at least some of these obstacles. “We’re seeing a lot of investment in telehealth and research into possible applications,” says Cutler. “There’s interest in helping doctors to provide care to less mobile or geographically-isolated patients but it could also allow GPs and other medical professionals to access different types of training. It could also help them to stay in touch with educators, specialists and their peers wherever they happen to be based.”

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