This study determines the trend in mental health-related mortality (defined here as the aggregation of suicide and deaths coded as "mental/behavioural disorders"), and its relative numerical importance, and to argue that this has importance to policy-makers. Its results will have policy relevance because policy-makers have been predominantly concerned with cost-containment, but a re-appraisal of this issue is occurring, and the trade-off between health expenditures and valuable gains in longevity is being emphasised now. This study examines longevity gains from mental health-related interventions, or their absence, at the population level. The study sums mortality data for suicide and mental/behavioural disorders across the relevant ICD codes through time in Australia for the period 1916-2004. There are two measures applied to the mortality rates: the conventional age-standardised headcount; and the age-standardised Potential Years of Life Lost (PYLL), a measure of premature mortality. Mortality rates formed from these data are analysed via comparisons with mortality rates for All Causes, and with circulatory diseases, cancer and motor vehicle accidents, measured by both methods.
This study finds the temporal trend in mental health-related mortality rates (which reflects the longevity of people with mental illness) has worsened through time. There are no gains. This trend contrasts with the (known) gains in longevity from All Causes, and the gains from decreases achieved in previously rising mortality rates from circulatory diseases and motor vehicle accidents. Also, PYLL calculation shows mental health-related mortality is a proportionately greater cause of death compared with applying headcount metrics.
There are several factors that could reverse this trend. First, improved access to interventions or therapies for mental disorders could decrease the mortality analysed here. Second, it is important also that new efficacious therapies for various mental disorders be developed. Furthermore, it is also important that suicide prevention strategies be implemented, particularly for at-risk groups. To bring the mental health sector into parity with many other parts of the health system will require knowledge of the causative factors that underlie mental disorders, which can, in turn, lead to efficacious therapies. As in any case of a knowledge deficit, what is needed are resources to address that knowledge gap. Conceiving the problem in this way, ie as a knowledge gap, indicates the crucial role of research and development activity. This term implies a concern, not simply with basic research, but also with applied research. It is commonplace in other sectors of the economy to emphasise the trichotomy of invention, innovation and diffusion of new products and processes. This three-fold conception is also relevant to addressing the knowledge gap in the mental health sector.
No recent Australian studies or literature, provide evidence of the extent of coverage of multicultural health issues in Australian healthcare research. A series of systematic literature reviews in three major Australian healthcare journals were undertaken to discover the level, content, coverage and overall quality of research on multicultural health. Australian healthcare journals selected for the study were The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), The Australian Health Review (AHR), and The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health (ANZPH). Reviews were undertaken of the last twelve (12) years (1996-August 2008) of journal articles using six standard search terms: 'non-English-speaking', 'ethnic', 'migrant', 'immigrant', 'refugee' and 'multicultural'.
In total there were 4,146 articles published in these journals over the 12-year period. A total of 90 or 2.2% of the total articles were articles primarily based on multicultural issues. A further 62 articles contained a major or a moderate level of consideration of multicultural issues, and 107 had a minor mention.
The quantum and range of multicultural health research and evidence required for equity in policy, services, interventions and implementation is limited and uneven. Most of the original multicultural health research articles focused on newly arrived refugees, asylum seekers, Vietnamese or South East Asian communities. While there is some seminal research in respect of these represented groups, there are other communities and health issues that are essentially invisible or unrepresented in research. The limited coverage and representation of multicultural populations in research studies has implications for evidence-based health and human services policy.
Public health educational pathways in Australia have traditionally been the province of Universities, with the Master of Public Health (MPH) recognised as the flagship professional entry program. Public health education also occurs within the fellowship training of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, but within Australia this remains confined to medical graduates. In recent years, however, we have seen a proliferation of undergraduate degrees as well as an increasing public health presence in the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector.
Following the 2007 Australian Federal election, the new Labour government brought with it a refreshing commitment to a more inclusive and strategic style of government. An important example of this was the 2020 visioning process that identified key issues of public health concern, including an acknowledgment that it was unacceptable to allocate less than 2% of the health budget towards disease prevention. This led to the recommendation for the establishment of a national preventive health agency (Australia: the healthiest country by 2020 National Preventative Health Strategy, Prepared by the Preventative Health Taskforce 2009).
The focus on disease prevention places a spotlight on the workforce that will be required to deliver the new investment in health prevention, and also on the role of public health education in developing and upskilling the workforce. It is therefore timely to reflect on trends, challenges and opportunities from a tertiary sector perspective. Is it more desirable to focus education efforts on selected lead issues such as the "obesity epidemic", climate change, Indigenous health and so on, or on the underlying theory and skills that build a flexible workforce capable of responding to a range of health challenges? Or should we aspire to both?
This paper presents some of the key discussion points from 2008 - 2009 of the Public Health Educational Pathways workshops and working group of the Australian Network of Public Health Institutions. We highlight some of the competing tensions in public health tertiary education, their impact on public health training programs, and the educational pathways that are needed to grow, shape and prepare the public health workforce for future challenges.
Cardiovascular disease is the major cause of premature death of Indigenous Australians, and despite evidence that cardiac rehabilitation (CR) and secondary prevention can reduce recurrent disease and deaths, CR uptake is suboptimal. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines Strengthening Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, published in 2005, provide checklists for services to assist them to reduce the service gap for Indigenous people. This study describes health professionals' awareness, implementation, and perspectives of barriers to implementation of these guidelines based on semi-structured interviews conducted between November 2007 and June 2008 with health professionals involved in CR within mainstream health services in Western Australia (WA). Twenty-four health professionals from 17 services (10 rural, 7 metropolitan) listed in the WA Directory of CR services were interviewed.
The majority of respondents reported that they were unfamiliar with the NHMRC guidelines and as a consequence implementation of the recommendations was minimal and inconsistently applied. Respondents reported that they provided few in-patient CR-related services to Indigenous patients, services upon discharge were erratic, and they had few Indigenous-specific resources for patients. Issues relating to workforce, cultural competence, and service linkages emerged as having most impact on design and delivery of CR services for Indigenous people in WA.
This study has demonstrated limited awareness and poor implementation in WA of the recommendations of the NHMRC Strengthening Cardiac Rehabilitation and Secondary Prevention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples: A Guide for Health Professionals. The disproportionate burden of CVD morbidity and mortality among Indigenous Australians mandates urgent attention to this problem and alternative approaches to CR delivery. Dedicated resources and alternative approaches to CR delivery for Indigenous Australians are needed.
The Australian Government's recent decision to replace the Rural Remote and Metropolitan Area (RRMA) classification with the Australian Standard Geographical Classification - Remoteness Areas (ASGC-RA) system highlights the ongoing significance of geographical classifications for rural health policy, particularly in relation to improving the rural health workforce supply. None of the existing classifications, including the government's preferred choice, were designed specifically to guide health resource allocation, and all exhibit strong weaknesses when applied as such. Continuing reliance on these classifications as policy tools will continue to result in inappropriate health program resource distribution. Purely 'geographical' classifications alone cannot capture all relevant aspects of rural health service provision within a single measure. Moreover, because many subjective decisions (such as the choice of algorithm and breakdown of groupings) influence a classification's impact and acceptance from its users, policy-makers need to specify explicitly the purpose and role of their different programs as the basis for developing and implementing appropriate decision tools such as 'rural-urban' classifications. Failure to do so will continue to limit the effectiveness that current rural health support and incentive programs can have in achieving their objective of improving the provision of health care services to rural populations though affirmative action programs.
Commentary on health policy reform in Australia often commences with an unstated logical error: Australians' health is good, therefore the Australian Health System is good. This possibly explains the disconnect between the options discussed, the areas needing reform and the generally self-congratulatory tone of the discussion: a good system needs (relatively) minor improvement.
This paper comments on some issues of particular concern to Australian health policy makers and some areas needing urgent reform. The two sets of issues do not overlap. It is suggested that there are two fundamental reasons for this. The first is the failure to develop governance structures which promote the identification and resolution of problems according to their importance. The second and related failure is the failure to equip the health services industry with satisfactory navigation equipment - independent research capacity, independent reporting and evaluation - on a scale commensurate with the needs of the country's largest industry. These two failures together deprive the health system - as a system - of the chief driver of progress in every successful industry in the 20th Century.
Concluding comment is made on the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (NHHRC). This continued the tradition of largely evidence free argument and decision making. It failed to identify and properly analyse major system failures, the reasons for them and the form of governance which would maximise the likelihood of future error leaning. The NHHRC itself failed to error learn from past policy failures, a key lesson from which is that a major - and possibly the major - obstacle to reform, is government itself. The Commission virtually ignored the issue of governance. The endorsement of a monopolised system, driven by benevolent managers will miss the major lesson of history which is illustrated by Australia's own failures.
Epidemiology has a central role in public health practice, education and research, and is arguably the only discipline unique to public health. A strong perception exists among epidemiologists in Australia that there is a substantial shortage in epidemiological capacity within the health workforce and health research, and that there are few graduates with sufficient high-level epidemiological training to fill the educational and leadership roles that will be essential to building this capacity. It was this concern that led the Australasian Epidemiological Association (AEA)--the peak professional body for epidemiologists in Australia and New Zealand--to convene a working group in 2007 to assess and address these concerns. This article summarises the key training challenges and opportunities discussed within this group, and the larger organisation, with the intention of stimulating greater public debate of these issues.
Unlike pharmaceuticals and private medical services there is no single source of funding for illness prevention and health promotion and no systematic process for setting priorities in public health. There is a need to improve the efficiency of access to health funding across prevention and treatment.
We discuss a number of reforms to existing funding arrangements including the creation of a national Preventative Priorities Advisory Committee (PrePAC) to set priorities. We propose the establishment of a PrePAC to provide evidence and set priorities across health promotion and illness prevention, with a national dedicated fund for health promotion.
A national evidence-based funding system for illness prevention and health promotion would legitimise a substantial and sustained budget for health promotion, breaking down some of the barriers in a fragmented federal health care system.
This paper presents Part 2 of a literature review examining medication safety in the Australian acute care setting. This review was undertaken for the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, updating the 2002 national report on medication safety. Part 2 of the review examined the Australian evidence base for approaches to build safer medication systems in acute care.
A literature search was conducted to identify Australian studies and programs published from 2002 to 2008 which examined strategies and activities for improving medication safety in acute care.
Results and conclusion
Since 2002 there has been significant progress in strategies to improve prescription writing in hospitals with the introduction of a National Inpatient Medication Chart. There are also systems in place to ensure a nationally coordinated approach to the ongoing optimisation of the chart. Progress has been made with Australian research examining the implementation of computerised prescribing systems with clinical decision support. These studies have highlighted barriers and facilitators to the introduction of such systems that can inform wider implementation. However, Australian studies assessing outcomes of this strategy on medication incidents or patient outcomes are still lacking. In studies assessing education for reducing medication errors, academic detailing has been demonstrated to reduce errors in prescriptions for Schedule 8 medicines and a program was shown to be effective in reducing error prone prescribing abbreviations. Published studies continue to support the role of clinical pharmacist services in improving medication safety. Studies on strategies to improve communication between different care settings, such as liaison pharmacist services, have focussed on implementation issues now that funding is available for community-based services. Double checking versus single-checking by nurses and patient self-administration in hospital has been assessed in small studies. No new studies were located assessing the impact of individual patient medication supply, adverse drug event alerts or bar coding. There is still limited research assessing the impact of an integrated systems approach on medication safety in Australian acute care.
Workforce shortages in Australia are occurring across a range of health disciplines but are most acute in general practice. Skill mix change such as task substitution is one solution to workforce shortages. The aim of this systematic review was to explore the evidence for the effectiveness of task substitution between GPs and pharmacists and GPs and nurses for the care of older people with chronic disease. Published, peer reviewed (black) and non-peer reviewed (grey) literature were included in the review if they met the inclusion criteria.
Forty-six articles were included in the review. Task substitution between pharmacists and GPs and nurses and GPs resulted in an improved process of care and patient outcomes, such as improved disease control. The interventions were either health promotion or disease management according to guidelines or use of protocols, or a mixture of both. The results of this review indicate that pharmacists and nurses can effectively provide disease management and/or health promotion for older people with chronic disease in primary care. While there were improvements in patient outcomes no reduction in health service use was evident.
When implementing skill mix changes such as task substitution it is important that the health professionals' roles are complementary otherwise they may simply duplicate the task performed by other health professionals. This has implications for the way in which multidisciplinary teams are organised in initiatives such as the GP Super Clinics.
In response to the escalating burden of chronic illness in Australia, recent health policies have emphasised the promotion of patient self-management and better preventive care. A notable omission from these policies is the acknowledgment that patients with chronic illness tend to have co-morbid conditions. Our objectives were: to identify the common challenges co-morbidity poses to patients and carers in their experiences of self-management; to detail the views and perceptions of health professionals about these challenges; and to discuss policy options to improve health care for people with co-morbid chronic illness. The method included semi-structured interviews and focus groups with 129 purposively sampled participants. Participants were people with Type 2 diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and/or chronic heart failure as well as carers and health care professionals. Content analysis of the interview data was conducted using NVivo7 software.
Patients and their carers found co-morbidity influenced their capacity to manage chronic illness in three ways. First, co-morbidity created barriers to patients acting on risk factors; second, it complicated the process of recognising the early symptoms of deterioration of each condition, and third, it complicated their capacity to manage medication.
Findings highlight challenges that patients with multiple chronic conditions face in relation to preventive care and self-management. Future clinical policy initiatives need to move away from single illness orientation toward strategies that meet the needs of people with co-morbid conditions and strengthen their capacity to self-manage. These patients will benefit directly from specialised education and services that cater to the needs of people with clusters of co-morbidities.
Better communication is often suggested as fundamental to increasing the use of research evidence in policy, but little is known about how researchers and policy makers work together or about barriers to exchange. This study explored the views and practice of policy makers and researchers regarding the use of evidence in policy, including: (i) current use of research to inform policy; (ii) dissemination of and access to research findings for policy; (iii) communication and exchange between researchers and policy makers; and (iv) incentives for increasing the use of research in policy.
Separate but similar interview schedules were developed for policy makers and researchers. Senior policy makers from NSW Health and senior researchers from public health and health service research groups in NSW were invited to participate. Consenting participants were interviewed by an independent research company.
Thirty eight policy makers (79% response rate) and 41 researchers (82% response rate) completed interviews. Policy makers reported rarely using research to inform policy agendas or to evaluate the impact of policy; research was used more commonly to inform policy content. Most researchers reported that their research had informed local policy, mainly by increasing awareness of an issue. Policy makers reported difficulty in accessing useful research syntheses, and only a third of researchers reported developing targeted strategies to inform policy makers of their findings. Both policy makers and researchers wanted more exchange and saw this as important for increasing the use of research evidence in policy; however, both groups reported a high level of involvement by policy makers in research.
Policy makers and researchers recognise the potential of research to contribute to policy and are making significant attempts to integrate research into the policy process. These findings suggest four strategies to assist in increasing the use of research in policy: making research findings more accessible to policy makers; increasing opportunities for interaction between policy makers and researchers; addressing structural barriers such as research receptivity in policy agencies and a lack of incentives for academics to link with policy; and increasing the relevance of research to policy.
While the causes of obesity are well known traditional education and treatment strategies do not appear to be making an impact. One solution as part of a broader complimentary set of strategies may be regulatory intervention at local government level to create environments for healthy nutrition and increased physical activity. Semi structured interviews were conducted with representatives of local government in Australia. Factors most likely to facilitate policy change were those supported by external funding, developed from an evidence base and sensitive to community and market forces. Barriers to change included a perceived or real lack of power to make change and the complexity of the legislative framework. The development of a systematic evidence base to provide clear feedback on the size and scope of the obesity epidemic at a local level, coupled with cost benefit analysis for any potential regulatory intervention, are crucial to developing a regulatory environment which creates the physical and social environment required to prevent obesity.
Private health insurance has been a major focus of Commonwealth Government health policy for the last decade. Over this period, the Howard government introduced a number of policy changes which impacted on the take up of private health insurance. The most expensive of these was the introduction of the private health insurance rebate in 1997, which had an estimated cost of $3 billion per annum.
This article uses information on the geographic distribution of the population with private health insurance cover to identify associations between rates of private health insurance cover and socioeconomic status. The geographic analysis is repeated with survey data on expenditure on private health insurance, to provide an estimate of the rebate flowing to different socioeconomic groups.
The analysis highlights the strong association between high rates of private health insurance cover and high socioeconomic status and shows the substantial transfer of funds, under the private health insurance rebate, to those living in areas of highest socioeconomic status, compared with those in areas of lower socioeconomic status, and in particular those in the most disadvantaged areas. The article also provides estimates of private health insurance cover by federal electorate, emphasising the substantial gaps in cover between Liberal Party and Australian Labor Party seats.
The article concludes by discussing implications of the uneven distribution of private health insurance cover across Australia for policy formation. In particular, the study shows that the prevalence of private health insurance is unevenly distributed across Australia, with marked differences in prevalence in rural and urban areas, and substantial differences by socioeconomic status. Policy formation needs to take this into account. Evaluating the potential impact of changes in private health insurance requires more nuanced consideration than has been implied in the rhetoric about private health insurance over the last decade.
This paper presents Part 1 of a two-part literature review examining medication safety in the Australian acute care setting. This review was undertaken for the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care to update a previous national report on medication safety conducted in 2002. This first part of the review examines the extent and causes of medication incidents and adverse drug events in acute care.
A literature search was conducted to identify Australian studies, published from 2002 to 2008, on the extent and causes of medication incidents and adverse drug events in acute care.
Studies published since 2002 continue to suggest approximately 2%–3% of Australian hospital admissions are medication-related. Results of incident reporting from hospitals show that incidents associated with medication remain the second most common type of incident after falls. Omission or overdose of medication is the most frequent type of medication incident reported. Studies conducted on prescribing of renally excreted medications suggest that there are high rates of prescribing errors in patients requiring monitoring and medication dose adjustment. Research published since 2002 provides a much stronger Australian research base about the factors contributing to medication errors. Team, task, environmental, individual and patient factors have all been found to contribute to error.
Medication-related hospital admissions remain a significant problem in the Australian healthcare system. It can be estimated that 190,000 medication-related hospital admissions occur per year in Australia, with estimated costs of $660 million. Medication incidents remain the second most common type of incident reported in Australian hospitals. A number of different systems factors contribute to the occurrence of medication errors in the Australian setting.
Correction to Banks E, Jorm L, Lujic S, Rogers K. Health, ageing and private health insurance: baseline results from the 45 and Up Study cohort. ANZ Health Policy 2009; 6: 16.
This study investigates the relationships between health and lifestyle factors, age and private health insurance (PHI) in a large Australian population-based cohort study of people aged 45 years and over; the 45 and Up Study. Unlike previous Australian analyses of relationships between health, lifestyle and PHI, it incorporates adjustment for multiple confounding socioeconomic and demographic factors. Recruitment into the 45 and Up Study began in February 2006 and these analyses relate to the first 103,042 participants who joined the study prior to July 2008.
The proportion with PHI decreased with increasing age. The factors independently and most strongly associated with having PHI were: higher income; higher educational attainment; not holding a health care concession card; not being of Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander origin; being a non-smoker; high levels of self-rated health and functional capacity; and low levels of psychological distress. These factors increased the probability of having PHI by 16% to 125%, compared to individuals without these characteristics. PHI coverage was significantly but only marginally higher in people reporting non-melanoma skin cancer (adjusted RR 1.04, 95%CI 1.03–1.05), prostate cancer (1.09, 1.06–1.11) or an enlarged prostate (1.07, 1.06–1.09), those reporting a family history of a range of conditions (e.g. 1.02, 1.01–1.03 for a family history of heart disease; 1.03, 1.02–1.04 for a family history of prostate cancer) and lower in people reporting diabetes (0.92, 0.91–0.94) or stroke (0.91, 0.88–0.94), compared to people who did not have these medical or family histories. PHI was higher in those reporting certain surgical procedures with RRs (95%CI) of 1.12 (1.09–1.15) for hip replacement, 1.10 (1.08–1.13) for knee replacement and 1.12 (1.09–1.15) for prostatectomy, compared to those not reporting these interventions.
Compared to the rest of the study population, those with PHI are richer, better educated, more health conscious, in better health and more likely to use certain discretionary health services. Hence, PHI use is generally highest among those with the least need for health care. Whether or not people have PHI is more strongly associated with demographic and lifestyle factors than with health status.
Parkinson's disease (PD) is one of the most common disabling neurological disorders and results in substantial burden for patients, their families and the as a whole society in terms of increased health resource use and poor quality of life. For all stages of PD, medication therapy is the preferred medical treatment. The failure of medical regimes to prevent disease progression and to prevent long-term side effects has led to a resurgence of interest in surgical procedures. Partially observable Markov decision models (POMDPs) are a powerful and appropriate technique for decision making. In this paper we applied the model of POMDP's as a supportive tool to clinical decisions for the treatment of patients with Parkinson's disease. The aim of the model was to determine the critical threshold level to perform the surgery in order to minimize the total lifetime costs over a patient's lifetime (where the costs incorporate duration of life, quality of life, and monetary units). Under some reasonable conditions reflecting the practical meaning of the deterioration and based on the various diagnostic observations we find an optimal average cost policy for patients with PD with three deterioration levels.
The formation of the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission (NHHRC) and the National Preventative Task Force in 2008, demonstrate a renewed Australian Government commitment to health reform. The re-focus on prevention, bringing it to the centre of health care has significant implications for health service delivery in the primary health care setting, supportive organisational structures and continuing professional development for the existing clinical and public health workforce. It is an opportune time, therefore, to consider new approaches to workforce development aligned to health policy reform. Regardless of the actual recommendations from the NHHRC in June 2009, there will be an emphasis on performance improvements which are accountable and aligned to new preventive health policy, organisational priorites and anticipated improved health outcomes.
To achieve this objective there will be a need for the existing population health workforce, primary health care and non-government sectors to increase their knowledge and understanding of prevention, promotion and protection theory and practice within new organisational frameworks and linked to the community. This shift needs to be part of a national health services research agenda, infrastructure and funding which is supportive of quality continuing professional development.
This paper discusses policy and practice issues related to workforce development as part of an integrated response to the preventive agenda.
At Independence the Government of Indonesia inherited a weak and unevenly distributed health system to which much of the population had only limited access. In response, the government decided to increase the number of facilities and to locate them closer to the people. To staff these health facilities the government introduced obligatory government service for all new graduates in medicine, nursing and midwifery. Most of these staff also established private practices in the areas in which they were located. The health information system contains little information on the health care facilities established for private practice by these staff. This article reports on the results of enumerating all health facilities in 15 districts in Java.
We enumerated all healthcare facilities, public and private, by type in each of 15 districts in Java.
The enumeration showed a much higher number of healthcare facilities in each district than is shown in most reports and in the health information system which concentrates on public, multi-provider facilities. Across the 15 districts: 86% of facilities were solo-provider facilities for outpatient services; 13% were multi-provider facilities for outpatient services; and 1% were multi-provider facilities offering both outpatient and inpatient services.
The relatively good distribution of health facilities in Indonesia was achieved through establishing public health centers at the sub-district level and staffing them through a system of compulsory service for doctors, nurses and midwives. Subsequently, these public sector staff also established solo-provider facilities for their own private practice; these solo-provider facilities, of which those for nurses are almost half, comprise the largest category of outpatient care facilities, most are not included in official statistics. Now that Indonesia no longer has mandatory service for newly graduated doctors, nurses and midwives, it will have difficulty maintaining the distribution of facilities and providers established through the 1980s. The current challenge is to envision a new health system that responds to the changing disease patterns as well as the changes in distribution of health facilities.
This article examines issues facing the future health care workforce in Australia in light of factors such as population ageing. It has been argued that population ageing in Australia is affecting the supply of health care professionals as the health workforce ages and at the same time increasing the demand for health care services and the health care workforce.
However, the picture is not that simple. The health workforce market in Australia is influenced by a wide range of factors; on the demand side by increasing levels of income and wealth, emergence of new technologies, changing disease profiles, changing public health priorities and a focus on the prevention of chronic disease. While a strong correlation is observed between age and use of health care services (and thus health care workforce), this is mediated through illness, as typified by the consistent finding of higher health care costs in the months preceding death.
On the supply side, the health workforce is highly influenced by policy drivers; both national policies (eg funded education and training places) and local policies (eg work place-based retention policies). Population ageing and ageing of the health workforce is not a dominant influence. In recent years, the Australian health care workforce has grown in excess of overall workforce growth, despite an ageing health workforce. We also note that current levels of workforce supply compare favourably with many OECD countries. The future of the health workforce will be shaped by a number of complex interacting factors.
Market failure, a key feature of the market for health care services which is also observed in the health care labour market – means that imbalances between demand and supply can develop and persist, and suggests a role for health workforce planning to improve efficiency in the health services sector. Current approaches to health workforce planning, especially on the demand side, tend to be highly simplistic. These include historical allocation methods, such as the personnel-to-population ratios which are essentially circular in their rationale rather than evidence-based. This article highlights the importance of evidence-based demand modelling for those seeking to plan for the future Australian health care workforce. A model based on population health status and best practice protocols for health care is briefly outlined.
The aim of this study is to investigate whether the public believes high cost patients should be a lower priority for public health care than low cost patients, other things being equal, in order to maximise health gains from the health budget. Semi-structured group discussions were used to help participants reflect critically upon their own views and gain exposure to alternative views, and in this way elicit underlying values rather than unreflective preferences. Participants were given two main tasks: first, to select from among three general principles for setting health care priorities the one that comes closest to their own views; second, to allocate a limited hospital budget between two groups of imaginary patients. Forty-one people, varying in age, occupation, income and education level, participated in a total of six group discussions with each group comprising between six and eight people.
After discussion and deliberation, 30 participants rejected the most cost-effective principle for setting priorities, citing reasons such as 'moral values' and 'a personal belief that we shouldn't discriminate'. Only three participants chose to allocate the entire hospital budget to the low cost patients. Reasons for allocating some money to inefficient (high cost) patients included 'fairness' and the desire to give all patients a 'chance'.
Participants rejected a single-minded focus on efficiency – maximising health gains – when setting priorities in health care. There was a concern to avoid strategies that deny patients all hope of treatment, and a willingness to sacrifice health gains for a 'fair' public health system.
Residents of socioeconomically disadvantaged locations are more likely to have poor health than residents of socioeconomically advantaged locations and this has been comprehensively mapped in Australian cities. These inequalities present a challenge for the public health workers based in or responsible for improving the health of people living in disadvantaged localities. The purpose of this study was to develop a generic workforce needs assessment tool and to use it to identify the competencies needed by the public health workforce to work effectively in disadvantaged communities.
A two-step mixed method process was used to identify the workforce needs. In step 1 a generic workforce needs assessment tool was developed and applied in three NSW Area Health Services using focus groups, key stakeholder interviews and a staff survey. In step 2 the findings of this needs assessment process were mapped against the existing National Health Training Package (HLT07) competencies, gaps were identified, additional competencies described and modules of training developed to fill identified gaps.
There was a high level of agreement among the AHS staff on the nature of the problems to be addressed but less confidence indentifying the work to be done. Processes for needs assessments, community consultations and adapting mainstream programs to local needs were frequently mentioned as points of intervention. Recruiting and retaining experienced staff to work in these communities and ensuring their safety were major concerns. Workforce skill development needs were seen in two ways: higher order planning/epidemiological skills and more effective working relationships with communities and other sectors. Organisational barriers to effective practice were high levels of annual compulsory training, balancing state and national priorities with local needs and giving equal attention to the population groups that are easy to reach and to those that are difficult to engage. A number of additional competency areas were identified and three training modules developed.
The generic workforce needs assessment tool was easy to use and interpret. It appears that the public health workforce involved in this study has a high level of understanding of the relationship between the social determinants and health. However there is a skill gap in identifying and undertaking effective intervention.
In public health, as well as other health education contexts, there is increasing recognition of the transformation in public health practice and the necessity for educational providers to keep pace. Traditionally, public health education has been at the postgraduate level; however, over the past decade an upsurge in the growth of undergraduate public health degrees has taken place.
This article explores the impact of these changes on the traditional sphere of Master of Public Health programs, the range of competencies required at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and the relevance of these changes to the public health workforce. It raises questions about the complexity of educational issues facing tertiary institutions and discusses the implications of these issues on undergraduate and postgraduate programs in public health.
The planning and provisioning of education in public health must differentiate between the requirements of undergraduate and postgraduate students – while also addressing the changing needs of the health workforce. Within Australia, although significant research has been undertaken regarding the competencies required by postgraduate public health students, the approach is still somewhat piecemeal, and does not address undergraduate public health. This paper argues for a consistent approach to competencies that describe and differentiate entry-level and advanced practice.
Health workforce has become a major concern and a significant health policy issue around the world in recent years. With recent international and national initiatives and models being developed and implemented in Australia and other countries, it is timely to understand the need and the rationale for a better trained and educated public health workforce for the future. Much more attention should also be given to evaluation and research in this field.
Through this thematic series on Workforce and Public Health, we have drawn on the diverse nature of public health, workforce implications, education and training and national and international case examples of ongoing improvements and issues in this sector.