Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) is surveying its members on the impact of COVID-19 on their education, training and professional practice.
Its findings to date hold important lessons for educators, employers and governments on how they can better support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce and, ultimately, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, particularly in times of disruption and public health emergencies.
Paul Gibson, IAHA’s Director of Policy and Research and Kylie Stothers, Director of Workforce Development, report below.
Paul Gibson and Kylie Stothers write:
With the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA), the national, member based, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health organisation, played a key role in understanding and responding to the impacts of COVID-19 on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce, across the spectrum of career stages and pathways.
Under the guidance of an IAHA COVID-19 Advisory Group, a two-way learning mechanism to hear from IAHA members across the country, IAHA heard feedback early in the pandemic. It reflected the experiences of the health workforce more generally: financial challenges, delayed and altered clinical placements, and increased workloads and risk of burnout, amongst other issues, often without tailored support.
A COVID-19 response strategy was developed to address these challenges and support members to stay connected and well throughout.
This included financial assistance and practical support such as bursaries for IT expenses; a series of member yarning sessions to bring members together and overcome professional and personal isolation; and ongoing professional development opportunities, delivering a culturally informed workforce series of events with a focus on practitioner and student selfcare.
In late 2020, IAHA obtained ethics approval to undertake deeper research to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce.
This body of research will consist of two surveys to gain qualitative and quantitative data from IAHA members on their personal experiences and how the pandemic is shaping their future ambitions.
Eighty one IAHA members – reflective of the cultural, geographic, and professional diversity of IAHA – responded to the first survey at the end of 2020.
The responses highlighted the challenges and opportunities experienced by members and the broad impacts of COVID-19 on both the current and emerging health workforce.
One interesting example of finding opportunity during the challenge of COVID-19 is outlined in this quote, from one of the survey respondents:
Due to COVID-19 I was seconded into rapid response work which led to a fulltime position as an Aboriginal Health Worker for the hospital. I had forgotten how satisfying it is working with and for community.”
The second iteration of the survey, open now, will be crucial to understanding how universities can and should retain flexibility in the delivery of (allied) health courses post-pandemic in ways that meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, and students from regional, rural, and remote Australia.
This might include expanding models for distance learning, block release and other strategies that can improve access to higher education by supporting the needs of students.
COVID-19 has demonstrated that this can be done, where there is an imperative to do so. There remains an imperative to develop a health workforce that is accessible to, and representative of, the communities it serves.
Challenges, barriers and opportunities
Challenges such as COVID-19 and climate related events highlighted the essential role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the entirety of the health workforce.
The strengths in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led responses, was highlighted in the recent report ‘Leadership and legacy through crises: keeping our mob safe’ which was prepared on behalf of the Close the Gap Campaign by the Lowitja Institute.
While many Australians lost work, IAHA members mostly reported an increased workload in caring for their communities, alongside adjusting to changes in ways of working such as the transition to digital health, changing use of PPE and new administrative and clinical practices.
Our members identified the need for greater support to transition to digital health, including managing the use of IT and remaining professionally engaged and motivated when working remotely.
They also identified barriers to digital health access in metropolitan and rural and remote communities, both in the more impersonal feel of digital health and preferences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, and in the practical barriers such as access to reliable and affordable ICT, housing, and privacy concerns.
Alongside these issues, there are opportunities, to provide access to culturally safe care, to reach more people without the loss of time due to travel, and to engage effectively with clients and their families in their care.
The barriers require essential consideration to ensure that digital health gains are experienced by all Australians, and do not further entrench the inequitable access and outcomes experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people with disability, those living in rural and remote Australia, and others.
Survey results also demonstrate that education models need to be supported by dedicated strategies to enable peer and cohort support amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.
Universities must continue to work towards becoming culturally safe and responsive environments for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to feel comfortable identifying and feeling supported by their university and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce peaks. They are the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association, the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives, the National Association of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers and Practitioners and IAHA.
Collectively, the issues uncovered through IAHA’s research, demonstrate a need for:
- educators to support the development of a digitally literate and adaptable workforce
- employers to support connection amongst the health workforce, including access to cultural personal and professional development opportunities for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce, such as the IAHA National Conference
- governments to invest in jobs in health, including support to establish new service models, beyond the retention of the MBS allied health items for delivery via digital health.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce peak organisations, and our members, play an important role leading change within and across sectors.
IAHA will publish the full results of the research project later in 2021 and believe this research will highlight how we can better support the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce, particularly in times of disruption and public health emergencies.
See previous Croakey articles on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workforce issues.
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