Allied health professionals form one of the largest cogs in the Australian healthcare system. They’re the dieticians, dental hygienists, sonographers, occupational therapists, radiographers, speech therapists and medical technologists (amongst many others) who deliver health services involving identification, evaluation and prevention of disorders and diseases, providing nutrition and dietary services, and managing many of our healthcare systems.
They work with physicians, dentists, nurses and pharmacists to provide patient-centred care that aims to provide Australians with the best possible health outcomes. They are at the front line, assisting Australians with health-related daily functions in as comprehensive a manner as possible. Their group can make up a startling 60% of a country’s health workforce.
So what does the future hold for this incredibly important group of professionals?
There is a growing demand on the Australian Healthcare system. As a percentage of GDP, where health expenditure accounted for around 6.5% in the late 80s, it now accounts for almost 10%. Much of this can be blamed on Australia’s aging population, as chronic illnesses and complex diseases become more common as our elderly population gets larger.
This is no momentary trend, either; as a country we’re expected to feel the effects of our huge baby boomer population growing older for decades to come. The subsequent demand on our healthcare system will be great, and allied healthcare as a whole needs to be prepared for the challenges that this upward curve will bring.
There is also a perceived disconnect between GPs and allied health professionals that will need to be bridged. A major complaint of allied health professionals is that they often don’t have access to all of the information required to properly perform their duties. Whether that be through lack of systems, a failure on the GP, dentist, nurse or pharmacist’s part, or a more simple confusion, this disconnect can cause real issues for any patient on the other end who simply needs to be treated.
The challenges may seem great, but they’re certainly not insurmountable. Let’s have a look at some of the possible solutions.
While the future demands on allied health professionals will be great, for the moment, at least, the supply is quite healthy. As this Allied Health Professionals Australia (AHPA) report notes, between 2005 and 2010 there was 37% increase in students completing health occupation university courses. The report goes on to note that the deregulation of university placements, commencing in 2012, should result in more course completions than ever before. Great news for the allied health industry.
While this may prove to be a momentary trend – the ‘flavour of the month’ for the current batch of university students – important insights can still be gained from allied health’s current popularity, which can be used in the future when the supply of new professionals begins to wane.
Addressing the GP/allied health professional disconnect may be the more important issue in the interim – it’s the more current and prevalent of the challenges, and one that requires somewhat of a paradigm shift to solve.
One possible way forward is to create collaborative healthcare centres – one-stop shops for health that allow GPs to talk more directly to allied health professionals, more efficiently relaying the relevant information. By putting GPs, nurses, optometrists, counsellors, physios and pharmacists in the same space, the disconnect will be minimised.
Technological advances may provide a solution where a collaborative centre is untenable. Universal secure databases, where information can be accessed instantaneously, may be the only viable way for the Australian healthcare system to keep up with demand in the future. In this respect our healthcare system is essentially already playing catch-up to many other industries, where such databases are now the rule, rather than the exception.
While there are certainly challenges to be faced, the forward-thinking nature of the Australian allied health sector has put it in prime position to face these problems head-on, and hopefully come up with clever, long-term solutions.
This is not only great news for the sector itself, but for all of us; everyday Australians who rely so heavily on the services allied health professionals provide.