Introduction by Croakey: In his National Press Club address today, Opposition leader Anthony Albanese pitched Labor’s policy for cheaper childcare as an economic reform because it would boost workforce participation and productivity.
Will there come a time when political leaders will prioritise investment in health and a healthy population as an economic reform?
If so, perhaps they will also understand the economic value of the allied health workforce, suggests Gemma Tuxworth, a physiotherapist and acting CEO of Services for Australian Rural and Remote Allied Health (SARRAH).
Gemma Tuxworth writes:
Six days ago, on 12 May, we saw a rare acknowledgement of the difficulties Australians face accessing essential allied health services. An ABC report shone a light on the need for more occupational therapists and speech pathologists.
At SARRAH we know this is a mere snapshot of endemic shortages in allied health professionals and service access across Australia. And, if you live in a regional, rural or remote community that access is harder and, too often, non-existent.
The allied health workforce includes professionals like physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, dietitians, psychologists and many more. We are trained to help people stay well, regain strength and capacity in physical, sensory, psychological, cognitive, social and cultural functioning. We provide expert care across every stage of life and in health, aged care, education, disability service, mental health and other sectors.
Often the need for this care is distracted by unhelpful arguments about definitions: things that don’t matter when you actually need the care this broad group of professionals provide. It’s best to look at these things in very practical terms and most of us know or can readily imagine situations where someone we care about:
- Has had a stroke and needs help to speak, swallow, move, deal with stress and isolation – the care provided by a physiotherapist, speech pathologist, a dietitian, an occupational therapist, a psychologist and more can be critical to recovery and the person’s future quality of life.
- Has a three-year old child with a developmental issue which could impact their opportunities for the rest of their life and they need attention now, parents don’t want to hear the next available appointment is in 12 months’ time or even worse.
- Is relieved to know paramedics are coming when there’s been a serious accident.
- Relies on a pharmacist to advise them on how to safely take their medication
- Has diabetes, and must access diabetes educators, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, and podiatrist to manage this chronic condition and prevent losing a limb.
- Has lost a limb, and accesses prosthetists to help them retain as much mobility and independence as possible.
- Has had an accident at work and needs rehabilitation – to keep a job, pay the bills and rent or mortgage.
In these situations, people understand what allied health therapies are about.
Raising the profile of allied health is essential to improve access to life changing services people need right across Australia.
On one hand, we laud our ‘universal’ systems, and on the other seem to think not having them is just part of living in rural and remote communities, as if that’s the natural state of things. It isn’t natural, it is a product of policy decisions, just as the continuation of the situation is a decision with an alternative.
So what better time than now for our countries’ leaders and would be leaders to seize the enormous multi layered benefits of a strong rural allied health workforce and service capacity. That would introduce something new to the election campaign.
The arguments for it are ready-made; they speak for themselves. To date the strongest argument for not doing it seems to be that the other side isn’t.
In rural and remote Australia, allied health professional shortages are twice as severe as for GPs. Even near large regional centres, people can wait 12 months or more to get services they need now.
We hear about the immense unmet need for enabling services in the findings of the Aged Care and Disability Royal Commissions but not about the skilled staff needed to provide those services. Allied health professionals – already the second largest group of health professionals nationally – lead national jobs demand.
The health and social assistance sector, which includes doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, personal care workers and others, has been by far the largest sector of employment growth for two decades.
The Government’s own projections show this demand is growing with over 300,000 extra workers needed over the next five years. (National Skills Commission’s Employment Projections). To give some perspective, that’s more than 10 new jobs for every additional job expected in the mining sector.
Allied health professions are leading demand. Already we don’t have enough – especially in rural and remote Australia – and in the next five years, demand will far outstrip almost every other employment sector.
Overall employment demand is expected to increase nationally by around nine percent. For GPs and Resident Medical Officers it is expected to grow by 10.2 per cent, and registered nurses 13.9 per cent.
For several allied health professions that demand will exceed 20 percent – audiologists and speech pathologists (34.7%), podiatrists (31.8%), physiotherapists (28.7%), dental practitioners (27.8%) and social workers (23.2%) among them.
And these jobs make it easier for others to stay active in jobs, productive and otherwise connected. Plus they bring income to their communities. Even if we ignore the direct individual and population health benefits of this investment, many studies show the economic return of investing in the health and enabling services – with returns many times higher than the outlay.
As our politicians wrestle with unpalatable (and often counterproductive) options to bring our blown out debt and national Budget into balance, they might think (as any rational household would) about measures that will improve capacity long-term and reduce ongoing costs.
Health investment should be seen as a driver of our economic recovery:
- It returns dividends in increased productivity of the entire workforce through higher participation rates and reduced lost work hours
- Better health and education outcomes for our children
- Working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, a better chance of closing the gap in health, education and jobs
- People with disability having greater capacity to participate in the social and economic aspects of life
- Better quality of life for older Australians living safely in the community for longer.
However, this election has seen little attention on allied health from any candidates.
Regardless of the outcome, SARRAH will continue to work with stakeholders, raise this profile and improve our national health, well-being, capacity and equity.
Gemma Tuxworth is a physiotherapist with nearly 10 years of clinical experience in Perth (WA), London, rural Western Australia and Tasmania. Using this experience, she stepped into leadership, management and planning roles, working as Primary Health Manager, delivering allied health services in the Wheatbelt in Western Australia; in clinical planning and project management in Perth and Tasmania; and as a Health Program Manager in Papua New Guinea. Gemma has and continues to live and work in rural and remote locations, and so is familiar with the issues faced by communities trying to access basic services. She is currently acting CEO at SARRAH, working to improve access to allied health in rural and remote Australia.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on allied health