Health workforce crisis threatens life expectancy gains in the NT

Health workforce crisis threatens life expectancy gains in the NT

Key Points:

  • Last week, Congress met with Professor Brendan Murphy AC about the primary health care workforce crisis, sharing proposed solutions
  • Workforce issues are impacting access to health care which will risk hard-earned life expectancy gains made for Aboriginal people
  • Revised post-covid policy allows international GP arrivals to choose to work in non-remote locations, which has no impact on the NT shortage.

Last Friday, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress (Congress) hosted a visit from Professor Brendan Murphy AC, Secretary of the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care

A key focus of the visit was discussions on the health workforce crisis in Aboriginal primary health care in rural and remote Australia, and in particular the Northern Territory.

Congress Chief Medical Officer Public Health, Dr John Boffa said of the crisis: “The primary health care workforce in rural and remote NT is at breaking point. The critical shortage of doctors, nurses, Aboriginal health practitioners, allied health and other staff has forced Congress to temporarily close one of our Alice Springs clinics, as we prioritise keeping our remote clinics open.”

“This situation is unacceptable and urgent action is needed. Shortages threaten to undermine progress made on improving Aboriginal life expectancy and health outcomes in the Northern Territory.

“We appreciate Professor Murphy making the time to visit Arrernte Country and seeing first-hand the effects these issues are having on the delivery of vital services to the community.”

While the life expectancy gap in the Northern Territory remains the widest of any jurisdiction, substantial improvement has occurred over the last two decades with a nine-year improvement in life expectancy for Aboriginal men and almost five years for Aboriginal women[i].

Dr Boffa continued: “Life expectancy gains have been led by primary health care services such as Congress. But this progress is at serious risk of stalling if we do not urgently address the workforce crisis.”

“This crisis is not new. We are here as a result of many years of inaction on the maldistribution of the health workforce and underinvestment by governments at all levels. The pandemic made things dramatically worse, and now ­– in Alice Springs in particular – social disorder unleashed by increased access to alcohol on previously ‘dry’ Aboriginal living areas has pushed things beyond the limit

Along with AMSANT (the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory), Congress has been raising the need for action with government for some time. Practical and achievable strategies to address the situation have been put forward, including easier access for international health professionals to come to work in the country.

Dr Boffa added “Yes, it is helpful that international health professionals in Australia are permitted to arrive in numbers close to those pre-COVID. Disappointingly however, a change in the rules means that many of the doctors coming in are able to go straight to work in the suburbs of capital cities and large regional cities instead of the rural and remote areas they are needed most.

“Australia cannot afford to bring in doctors from overseas and let them work where they are not needed – especially when the needs in remote areas are so great.

“Address these needs by making MM2 localities off limits for international medical graduates and non-vocationally registered Australian doctors; or watch these doctors continue to leave areas of need and go and work in capital cities.”

Dr Boffa concluded by thanking Professor Murphy for his visit and for his careful consideration of the issues raised during his visit.

“Following on from the visit of Prime Minister Albanese and his senior Ministers to Alice Springs in January, this visit by the head of the national Health Department gives us hope that Government is listening to our concerns.”

An expanded list of Congress’ recommendations is provided as an appendix of this release.

Media contact: Kate Buckland 0408 741 691

[i] Zhao, Y., et al., Improved life expectancy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, 1999–2018: overall and by underlying cause of death. Medical Journal of Australia, 2022. 217(1): p. 30-35