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Doctor shortages loom as country falls ‘dangerously behind’ on workforce planning

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The country is falling “dangerously behind” on efforts to ensure it has enough doctors to meet future need amid signs that work on medical workforce planning has virtually stalled since the abolition of Health Workforce Australia, the AMA has warned.

As pressure on medical training places intensifies, AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis has voiced alarm that shutting down the HWA has robbed all the momentum from medical workforce planning, putting the nation at risk of severe shortages of doctors in coming years.

Dr Parnis said that, before it closed, HWA had predicted a significant bottleneck in entry to vocational training by 2016, as well as a potential shortage of resident medical officer training places.

He said the AMA was also starting to see evidence of a shortage of public sector training places for new Fellows in a number of specialties, such as anaesthetics, alongside unresolved shortages in rural areas.

In its landmark report Health Workforce 2025, HWA provided the first detailed analysis of the nation’s medical workforce, projections of future demand for medical services, and the number of training places needed to meet this demand.

Among its findings, HWA predicted there would be a shortage of 2700 doctors by 2025, a shortage of postgraduate training places, and insufficient practitioners in a range of specialties, particularly radiation oncology and psychiatry.

Since 2004, there has been a major ramp up in medical school places, and by 2017 the annual number of graduates is expected to reach 3800.

But this expansion has not been matched by a similar increase in internships and prevocational and vocational training places, potentially leaving many graduates stranded without the training needed to complete their studies and become a doctor.

Early this year, HWA began work on a National Training Plan which would use extensive specialty workforce projections to advise on necessary training places.

But Dr Parnis said there were fears this work had now stalled.

“The essential functions of HWA have been absorbed into the Department of Health, but the AMA understands that only seven former HWA staff accepted offers of employment with the Department,” he said. “As a result, work on the National Training Plan appears to have lost all momentum.”

Dr Parnis said this was a huge concern, and time had already probably run out to ensure there were sufficient vocational training places in 2016.

“Conscious of these shortages, and noting that the advertising of posts and applications for entry to vocational training in 2016 will occur in mid-2015, the need for a detailed National Training Plan is clearly taking on increased urgency,” the AMA Vice President said. “The reality is that already there is probably insufficient time for substantial work to be done to inform vocational training numbers for 2016.”

He said it was vital that the work of the National Medical Training Advisory Network in overseeing the development of a detailed National Training Plan was reactivated quickly.

 “Workforce planning is falling dangerously behind, and it is patients and communities who will miss out on the highly trained doctors they need in the future if we don’t get the planning right now,” Dr Parnis said.

The AMA has raised its concerns with Health Minister Peter Dutton.

Adrian Rollins