Patient care threatened by workforce shortage

Patient care will suffer unless a coherent, research-based solution is found to creating a medical workforce that assists the emerging new models of care developing in Australia as a result of doctor shortages, a visiting US expert has warned.

Professor Larry Green, Senior Scholar in Residence at the Robert Graham Center in Washington, said the trend of redesigning the medical workforce to allay the shortage of health care workers in the US, is "complicated, developing in ways that are nearly chaotic, and defying simple claims and predictions".

Australia risks a similar fate if the reaction to filling the medical workforce void is not well considered and based on research into what is best for patients and their care, Professor Green said.

Speaking at the General Practice and Primary Health Care Research Conference in Perth, Professor Green said that as recently as last week the American Medical Colleges had warned of a looming doctor shortage.

"However, projecting workforce numbers is such an imprecise science it can vary significantly depending on the approach you use," he said.

"What is more important to determine for health policy makers is what you want GPs to do, and what role can be devised for other players in the healthcare team.

"Otherwise, how is it possible to know how many physicians are needed in the workforce and what the other members of the 'team' will do?

"These issues will have a significant impact on the health of our populations and an evident affect on each patient's level of care," Professor Green said.

In the US and increasingly in the UK, alternative medical roles like physician assistants have developed. These practitioners work under the supervision of doctors performing routine diagnostic, therapeutic and preventative health care services and undergo training separate to other medical professionals.

In Australia many States, such as Tasmania, have already introduced Independent Nurse Practitioners and the role of the practice nurse in general practice is expanding with increasing Government Medicare Benefits Scheme payments for nurse care.

Professor Nicholas Glasgow, Director of the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute, based at ANU, said Australia needed to weigh up the experience of our overseas counterparts.

"We need to consider the experience of the United States and other comparator countries, like the UK, when trying to find solutions to our workforce shortage at home. These are serious issues and patient health outcomes need to be at the forefront of our thinking when developing health policies to deal with them."

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Professor Green's visit was sponsored by the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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