Workforce challenges that impact the continuity of health care in Northern Territory communities

  • Coastal sunset - Galaru, East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory
    Galaru, East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory - Photo contributed with permission of Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation. Photo Winston Storer. CC BY-SA 4.0
Rural Locum Assistance Program
Jamie Smith, Marketing Manager

East Arnhem South is a region that covers several communities including Alyangula, Umbakumba and Angurugu (Groote Eylandt), Milyakburra (Bickerton Island) and Numbulwar (Mainland community). There is a primary health care centre within each community that provides a full range of services to First Nations people.

Jeff Gaden is the District Manager for South East Arnhem and his role focuses on workforce and finance strategy that supports regional clinical managers in providing primary health care to communities within the region. Mr Gaden identified several workforce challenges that affect the continuity of health care to communities within the region, including access, timing and costs associated with back-filling permanent health care professionals that go on leave.

Permanent health care professionals in the South East Arnhem region have leave entitlements that equate to approximately nine weeks per year, in addition to any training requirements, so the need for remote-ready personnel is constant and costly.

Airfares alone cost, on average and subject to availability, between $1,000 and $2,000 return to transport a health professional from their hometown to a Northern Territory community. This estimate excludes the cost of accommodation for the back-fill period which can be up to 28 days per placement.

The ideal scenario for remote health centres is to have a quality casual pool of employees to back-fill permanent health care professionals that go on leave, but the reality is that there is a severe shortage and managers must look outside the Northern Territory for qualified remote-ready personnel.

John Langrell, Primary Health Care Manager at Alyangula Health Centre, said that it is difficult “finding health professionals who are available to cover when permanent staff are taking recreation leave and attending professional development – particularly finding health professionals who have the required qualifications to perform remote area nurse roles”.

Alyangula is a mining community on Groote Eylandt, approximately 650km east of Darwin and 50km off the Arnhem Land coast in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The health centre provides services to a community of 700 residents and approximately 400 to 500 FIFO workers. It is important that the service maintains functionality to provide the community with ongoing and exceptional standards of health care.

In 2011, the Australian Government Department of Health established a Government-funded locum program to support rural and remote health services across Australia. Administered by Aspen Medical, the Rural Locum Assistance Program (Rural LAP) has assisted regions like South East Arnhem to maintain high-quality continuity of health care services to their communities.

“Rural LAP provides my region with a cost-effective solution to ensuring ongoing clinical service delivery, while facilitating access to essential continuous professional development opportunities and recreational and social leave”, Mr Gaden said.

Since inception, Rural LAP has completed nearly 2,000 placements in the NT and over 7,000 placements across rural and remote Australia.

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