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.