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Simple fixes to the healthcare workforce crisis

27 Sep 2023, by Amy Sarcevic

Statistics around the future of Australia’s workforce have sent shock-waves through the already overburdened sector, but there may be some simple strategies to overcome them, according to Dr Joseph Occhino of Queensland Health.

Despite the WHO predicting a global shortfall of 14.5 million workers by 2030, Dr Occhino believes small measures which make it easier for people to enter or keep a career in health can make a big difference.

He believes many of the barriers to working in healthcare are practical or psychological – both of which can be countered through flexible hiring models.

“Workforce demographics show us that people are working less than they did before. Many are dropping full time hours – some to spend with their families, but most to do a second job or work on a passion project. So there seems to be this appetite for variation in people’s working week,” he said.

Queensland Health caters to this by allowing senior clinicians to balance their work in an executive capacity as well maintaining a clinical role. But Dr Occhino says there are lots of other options.

“Dual qualified Nurses and paramedics could rotate rosters between the two professions, working as a nurse this month and as a paramedic the next for example,” he said.

“Employers should think creatively about how they can give people more diverse roles or schedules. We don’t have to stay loyal to traditional ways of working.”

Flexibility in the hiring process can also go a long way, Dr Occhino says, opening roles up to a more diverse pool of people and increasing the supply of candidates.

“You can still do the traditional interviewing processes, but also acknowledge people from different backgrounds and provide more culturally-sensitive options for how they can demonstrate their suitability to the role.

“For people with a First Nations background we need to make the process culturally safe with small gestures. For example, having a First Nations person on the panel and opening the session with an acknowledgement of country is easy to implement quickly.

“Also, we should consider modifying the selection techniques to allow people with English as a second language to demonstrate their suitability for a role by providing questions in advance, using a translator. This way the candidate can speak in their native language and work trials. Health has a very diverse clientele, so the more we have workers that represent who we provide care for the better our health system will be.”

Technology also has a role to play in maintaining a healthy workforce, serving to optimise clinicians’ time and enhance the appeal of their day to day role.

“Streamlining clinical workflows through AI, for example, could increase the amount of time they spend delivering care could also make their roles more attractive,” Dr Occhino said.

“The less administration clinicians have to do the greater the level of productivity and job satisfaction.”

Alongside these efforts, healthcare careers might benefit from a dedicated PR campaign to help them regain some of the status they lost during the pandemic.

“We need to put the pride back into the jersey,” Dr Occhino said. “COVID didn’t paint a nice picture of what it is like to be a clinician and enrolments in healthcare degrees have dropped as a consequence.

“Before COVID, clinical work was more attractive and there is no reason it can’t be seen as that again.”

Despite these strategies, Dr Occhino admits there may be a long road ahead before the sector can take its feet of the pedals.

“The pathways into healthcare professions, particularly specialities, are already lengthy, but now people are taking even longer to complete their qualifications, due to the cost of living crisis and the increased need to work alongside their studies. This means the pipeline of new talent may run dry for a little while longer.

“We are also yet to fully reap the benefits of AI and other efficiency-boosting technologies and, in the meantime, healthcare remains pretty challenging to work in. Clinicians are having to stretch themselves thin and, until that improves, we likely won’t have people queueing up to work longer hours or break into the profession.”

Dr Joseph Occhino is the Assistant Deputy Director-General of Queensland Health and Adjunct Associate Professor, Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences at The University of Queensland.

Giving more suggestions for a stronger, more sustainable, healthcare workforce, Dr Occhino will present at the National Health Workforce Summit on 13-14 November.

This year’s event will be held at the Swissotel Sydney.

Learn more and register your place here.


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