Chapter 2 - Nurse shortages and the impact on health services
Workforce planning and education has been sporadic, poorly
integrated and inadequate. Nurses today however continue to provide high
quality care despite these issues. It is apparent however that the impact of
nurses continually providing more health care with fewer resources and lesser
recognition, is that we cannot retain the nurses we have and cannot attract
The shortage of nurses is being experienced
worldwide. The International Council of Nurses reported that the majority of
states of the World Health Organisation experienced ‘shortage, maldistribution
and misutilisation of nurses’.
In Australia, difficulties in recruiting and retaining skilled experienced
nurses are currently occurring in both the public and private sectors and it is
anticipated that the situation will not improve in the foreseeable future.
According to anecdotal evidence, 75 per cent of nurses in hospital wards
are now talking about leaving. Some hospitals reported that they experience a
30 per cent turnover of nurses each year. Submissions indicated that the
real shortage of nurses is hidden as nursing data is incomplete and inadequate,
nurses are working greater amounts of overtime, there has been an increased use
of agency nurses and hospital beds have closed.
Many witnesses indicated that while there were
shortages across the board, some specialist areas, notably critical care,
midwifery, aged care and mental health, faced acute shortages of nursing staff.
Witnesses described the current situation as a ‘crisis’ which is having, and
will continue to have, an adverse impact on the quality of care provided to
patients. The School of Nursing, Queensland University of Technology, stated
that if the crisis was not stopped and reversed, it ‘will lead to a serious
reduction in the Australian community’s ability to access a range of hospital
and residential aged care services. If healthcare agencies continue to treat
the same number of patients, despite these shortages, patient care will be
This chapter looks at the current level of
employment in the nurse workforce, the estimated shortage, even crisis,
projected demands for nurses, nurse workforce planning needs and the impact on
health service delivery of shortages. The data used is drawn from the
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), State and Territory sources
and from the evidence provided during the inquiry. In this chapter, the use of
the term ‘nurse’ refers to both registered nurses (RNs) and enrolled nurses
(ENs). RN and EN are used when appropriate to differentiate between the two
Nursing in context
In the past, discussions of the nurse workforce
focused on nursing within the acute hospital sector, particularly acute public
hospitals. However, as noted in the Committee’s report on public hospital
funding, while public hospitals play an important role in health care
provision, ‘their services form part of the continuum of care, an increasing
amount of which is provided outside of hospitals’. As a consequence of this trend,
there has been a shift of nursing staff into the provision of care in the
community. With the ageing population there is increasing demand for nursing in
the aged care sector. This sector is now the next largest employer of nurses
after the acute care sector. Nurses are also playing a critical role in health
promotion and health prevention in the primary healthcare model. In rural and
remote Australia, nurses form the basis of healthcare services and may, in more
remote areas, provide the only health care to the communities in which they
At the same time, the working environment of
nurses and the characteristics of those they care for, whether in the acute
hospital sector, the aged care sector or the community, have changed
particularly over the last decade. The following is a brief overview of major
trends in healthcare in Australia, based on information contained in the
National Review of Nursing Education (the Education Review) Discussion Paper.
- ageing population: in 1999, 12.3% of the population were aged 65
years and over. Age is a significant predictor of poor health and disability,
with many chronic diseases and conditions highly prevalent in the older
- Indigenous population: life expectancy in the Indigenous
population at 65 years is significantly lower than for the non-Indigenous
population (68% of Indigenous males can expect to live beyond 65 years compared
to 84% for all males and 80% of Indigenous females can expect to live beyond 65
years compared to 91% of all females). Less than one third of the Indigenous
population live in capital cities with easy access to mainstream health
services and one in five reside in remote settings;
- enhanced primary care: there is increased use of general
practitioner services in metropolitan areas, however, in rural and remote areas
there is a much lower provision of health professionals and a greater reliance
on nurses for healthcare services;
- high tech short stays in acute hospitals: there has been a
decrease in the number of acute hospital beds (from 5.2 beds per 1 000
population in 1987-88 to 4.0 beds in 1998-99) and in the average length of
stays in hospitals (from 4.6 days in 1993-94 to 3.7 days in 1998-99); acute
hospital separations grew from 257 per 1 000 population in 1993-94 to 294
- de-institutionalisation and community care: there has been a move
to the integration of services in the community and de-institutionalisation of
mental health services. Between 1991 and 1996 there was a 47% decrease in the
number of psychiatric hospitals and an 80% increase in the number of community
- new technologies: scientific developments in relation to disease
management and control, and technological advances in fields such as communications
(for example, Telemedicine) impact on the education and the scope of practice
- healthcare expenditure: there has been an average increase of
4.0% in healthcare expenditure for the ten years to 1999-00. Labour costs are
the largest item, although, while significant, available information does not
enable the proportion of health expenditure spent on nurses to be calculated;
- aged care: major restructuring of residential aged care occurred
in 1997, with the move to ‘ageing in place’. In 2000, there were 84 residential
aged care places per 1 000 population aged 70 years and over (a decrease
from 89.3 places per 1 000 in 1997) and 11 community aged care
packages per 1 000 population aged 70 years and over (an increase from 3.9
packages per 1 000 in 1994); and
- consumer input: consumers of health services have become more
knowledgeable and have higher expectations of health services, both
qualitatively and quantitatively.
These changes have impacted on the skill level
and expertise required of all nurses. In the acute sector, changes to care and
improvements in technology has led to the increasing need for a highly
specialised workforce. Indeed, some specialties would not be able to function
efficiently without an appropriate specialist nurse workforce. Changes in the
aged care sector has seen a move away from what has been described as
‘custodial care’ to the provision of more complex and intensive levels of care,
such as palliative and post-operative care.
In the community sector, nurses are dealing with
much sicker clients due to shorter hospital stays. The care of those suffering
from drug problems, increased incidence of mental illness and depression and
the emergence of social problems such as child and elder abuse and violence,
have added to the complexity of the community sector working environment. As a
result, a more highly skilled generalist workforce is emerging in the community
sector. This trend is exemplified in rural and remote areas where the nurse
workforce is the major provider of health services.
Changes to the healthcare system, the way in
which services are delivered and changes to the skills required of those
working within the system, are significantly affecting the nurse workforce at a
time when there is a severe shortage of experienced nurses and there are acute
problems in retaining those still in the nurse workforce.
The nursing workforce
Queensland Health’s submission stated that no
one knows exactly how many nurses there are in Australia. Data on the nursing workforce
is available from a number of sources: statistics on registration and
enrolments are available from nursing boards in each State and Territory and
data on the nurse workforce is available from the Census, the AIHW’s annual
nursing labour force survey (conducted in conjunction with renewals of
registration) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics quarterly labour force
A major problem with the data arises from
variations between the data sets. Variations arise as a result of double
counting of nurses with registration in more than one jurisdiction, differences
in nomenclature and differences in the purpose for which the data is collected.
There are also delays in the processing of data and reporting the findings. The
limitations of the data on the nurse workforce are discussed later in the
chapter. The following information provides an overview of the latest available
Nursing Labour Force 1999
The AIHW’s Nursing Labour Force 1999
presents statistics from the 1997 Nursing Workforce Survey. The results of the
1999 survey will be available later this year. The AIHW’s findings were cited
in many submissions as evidence of the change to the nursing environment. Nursing
Labour Force 1999 showed the following:
- after allowing for multiple registrations, nursing registrations
and enrolments fell from 270 720 in 1993 to 257 662 in 1999, a
decrease of 4.8%; for the period 1994 to 1997, there was a decrease of 5.6%;
- in 1999 it was estimated that there were 233 096 in the
nursing labour force with 221 988 nurses employed mainly in nursing; in
1994 the numbers were 242 225 and 225 110 respectively;
- in 1999, an estimated 24 571 registered and enrolled nurses
were not in the nursing labour force (that is, they were not looking for work
in nursing as they were either employed elsewhere or not employed, or were
overseas) an increase from 23 659 in 1997;
- from 1994 to 1997, the number of employed enrolled nurses
decreased by 12.2% from 52 676 to 46 276, mainly on account of a
22.0% decrease in those employed in nursing homes; and
- nurse employment per 100 000 population fell from
1 171.1 in 1989 to 1 032.7 in 1999.
The AIHW noted that raw counts of the number of
people in an occupation do not, by themselves, give an accurate indication of
the labour supply, particularly in occupations where there are large numbers of
part-time workers. Nursing numbers adjusted to full-time equivalent (FTE)
nurses take account of hours worked. The AIHW also provided indicators of
changes in the workload of nurses in hospitals which is related to the number
of occupied beds, patient throughput (ie separations) and the average length of
stay in hospital for both the public and private sectors.
The trends identified included that between
1995-96 and 1998-99 there was a marginal increase of 0.5% in the number of FTE
nursing staff in hospitals (public and private acute and psychiatric and
private free-standing day hospitals). Between 1995-96 and 1998-99 in public
hospitals there was an increase of separations per FTE nurse – from 44.6 to
49.3. This reflects the 4.9% decline of FTE staffing (a decline of 2.8% in
nursing staff and a 53.3% decline in other personal care staff) and the 7.4%
increase in patient separations (to 20.3 FTE per 1 000 separations). There
was also an 8.5% decrease in patient average stay day. This means that patient
numbers per FTE nurse increased.
In private hospitals (acute and psychiatric
hospitals) between 1995-96 and 1998-99, there was an increase of 10.1% in
overall FTE staffing (an increase of 11.0% in FTE nursing staff and an increase
of 8.9% for other staff). At the same time there was an increase of 4.5% in
separations per FTE nurse (to 15.2 FTE per 1 000 separations) and 6.8%
decline in patient days per FTE nurse. In private free-standing day hospitals,
FTE nurses and other staff increased 50.1% and 45.8% respectively between
1995-96 and 1998-99 although the numbers of staff remain small. AIHW noted that
the difference between public and private hospitals FTE per 1 000
separations is largely associated with wide differences in the nursing care
requirements of the patients treated in each sector.
National Review of Nursing
Education published information
The National Review of Nursing Education
provides a further source of information on the nursing workforce in its
published material, including the December 2001 Discussion Paper and a
commissioned research study that investigated job growth and turnover in
nursing occupations in the period 1987-2001. The trends identified in the
research study included:
- employment of nursing workers (personal care assistants;
assistants in nursing; directors of nursing; nursing professionals; and
enrolled nurses) grew at an average annual rate of 0.8%, half the rate of all
occupations; employment contracted in some States (South Australia and
Tasmania) while in Queensland the growth rate was 2.7 per cent per year;
- between 1987 and 2001, employment of nursing professionals (nurse
managers, nurse educators and researchers; registered nurses; registered
midwives; registered mental health nurses; registered developmental disability
nurses) increased by 30% to 183 900 in 2001, an annual growth rate of
- registered nurses numbers grew between 1987 and 2001 to
163 500, an increase of 29.3% during the period;
- the employment of enrolled nurses declined 20.6% between 1987 and
2001 to 22 500 (partly due to restructuring of the nursing workforce in
the early 1990s);
- projected annual growth of employment in nursing occupations is
expected to be 0.4% (compared to 1.5% for all occupations) over the next five
years with large growth in managerial positions and registered midwives and
contraction in employment for enrolled nurses and registered mental health
- projected net job openings for new entrants to the nursing
profession (RNs and ENs) are expected to be about 27 000 over the next
five years, with 80% due to replacement and 20% due to growth with the highest
rate of job openings in managerial positions and for registered midwives.
The Education Review noted that caution should
be used in interpreting the numbers provided as, for example, changes in
classification categories can impact on trend data; data is collected from
different sources which may not ask the same questions; and, much of the data
relies on self reporting which requires individual interpretation of categories
and labels. The Education Review concluded ‘however, it is possible to gain a
picture of the trends from the information supplied’.
State and Territory nursing data
The Committee also received statistics on nurse
registrations and enrolments in States and Territories. In South Australia in
2000, there were 16 742 RNs (a decrease of 5.8% from 17 779 in 1992)
and an estimated 5 000 ENs (a decrease of 26% from 6 774 in 1992)
with active registration with the Nurses Board of South Australia. Of these, an
estimated 1 846 RNs and 353 ENs were not in the workforce.
In Victoria, from 1996 to 2000 there was a 2.4%
decline in the total number of nurses registered from 71 813 to
70 075. In 1998, some 13 461 nurses were registered but not employed
as nurses. In 2001, 71 079 nurses were registered in Victoria, an increase
of 1.5% over the previous year. Significant growth is also
expected in 2002, however, the number of graduates becoming registered
accounted for less than half the growth in registrations in 2000 and 2001. The
growth was attributed to an extensive recruitment campaign, including
advertising and cost-free refresher/re-entry courses, conducted by the
Victorian Government. As a result, the public sector workforce increased by
over 2 300 FTE nurses (an increase of 10%) with 1 300 of these
introduced into the public health system to improve nurse-patient ratios, while
1 000 were recruited to meet growth in demand. It was suggested in evidence
that some of these nurses had been attracted from the aged care sector.
In NSW in 2000, there were 76 188 RNs and
16 136 ENs. Since 1996 there has been a 2.8% increase in the number of RNs
and a 2.7% decline in ENs.
In January 2002, the Nursing Re-Connect campaign was launched to attract nurses
who have been out of the nursing workforce for some time back into nursing. By
March 2002, some 300 nurses had re-entered nursing or were about to do so.
In Queensland, in 2001 there were 36 817
RNs, an increase of 5.4% since 1996 and 7 095 ENs, a decrease of 11.7%.
Queensland’s total public sector nursing workforce FTE increased approximately
9% between 1995 and 1999, with the registered nurse workforce increasing about
12% and the assistant in nursing and enrolled nurse workforces both decreasing
In Tasmania, the number of nurses holding
current annual practicing certificates (inclusive of ENs and RNs) has declined
by 11% since 1997. Tasmania has advertised nurse vacancies extensively –
locally, nationally and internationally – but with only limited success.
In the ACT, separation rates of nurses in the
public sector have exceeded commencement rates by nearly 25% over the past
three years. During this time the largest reductions have been in enrolled
nurses and level 1 registered nurses. At present there are approximately
4 000 nurses registered and about 2 100 practicing.
The Northern Territory has experienced a decline
in nursing staff. There are now about 1 700 nurses employed in the public
health sector, comprising 36% of the total workforce. Turnover in many areas is also
significant and the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) (NT Branch) stated
‘these turnover rates are considerably more excessive than the eastern seaboard
Factors impacting on demand for nurses
There are many factors impacting on the demand
for nurses. Two main areas are employment trends in the nursing workforce
including ageing of the workforce and the move to part-time work; and changes
in the healthcare sector.
The nursing workforce has a large number of
part-time employees and this is increasing. The proportion in part-time work
(that is, less than 35 hours per week) increased from 41.2% to 44.1% between
1990 and 1999, and in 1999 enrolled nurses were much more likely to work part-time
(60%) than registered nurses (52.5%).
With the shift to part-time work, greater
numbers of nurses are needed to provide the same level of services. The impact
of this shift is illustrated by information from Queensland. In 1995 the
average FTE per registered nurse was 0.86, which fell to 0.84 in 1999. It was
noted that ‘although the changes in average FTE appear to be subtle, they do
have an important impact on the number of nurses Queensland Health employs’.
The number of registered nurses employed by Queensland Health increased by 16%
between 1995 and 1999 as compared with an increase of 12% in FTE.
The AIHW reported that since the mid 1980s, the
age structure of the nurse workforce has undergone a major change. At the 1986
census, 23.3% of nurses were aged under 25 years with 17.5% aged over
45 years. By the 1996 census, 7.7% of nurses were under 25 years and
30.3% were over 45 years. This reflects the move to university-based training
as well as the decline in the number of students undertaking nursing education.
The average age of nurses increased from 39.1 years to 40.4 years
between 1994 and 1997.
In some areas the average age is higher, for example, on the Tasmanian
North-West Coast and in the Swan Health Service WA, the average age in 2000 was
In some specialist areas the average age is also greater, for example, in South
Australia the average age of midwives is 44 years while in Tasmania the average
age of midwives is 54 years.
The Australian Nursing Council Inc (ANCI) noted
that the ageing workforce reflected the expansion of the nursing workforce
which had occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. Those nurses are now in their
40s and 50s. Over the next 10 to 15 years, 30% of the workforce will be
contemplating retirement. Nurses approaching retirement may also switch to
part-time work, further exacerbating the nurse shortage. At the same time, the
average age of nursing students has increased. In 1997 it was found that 25% of
NSW entrants to nursing study were aged 23 years or older. The
consequences are a reduced working life for up to 25% of all new graduates.
Some witnesses did not see the ageing of the
workforce as the main problem, rather the concern is the failure to graduate
sufficient nurses to replace older nurses as they reach retirement. (This is
discussed further below.) Older, experienced nurses are also essential to
provide mentoring for inexperienced nurses coming into the workforce.
Nursing remains a predominantly female
profession. There has been little change in the number of males employed in
nursing – enrolled male nurses increased from 6.2% to 6.3% of total ENs from
1994 to 1997 and in the same period the number of employed male registered
nurses increased from 7.6% to 8.0% of total RNs.
The nursing workforce is also highly mobile with
nurses readily able to move between employment settings, be that intrastate,
interstate or overseas. For example, in the Northern Territory, many nurses are
attracted to short-term contracts during the peak tourist season from approximately
April to September. In the Northern Territory, the ANF also indicated that the
overall turnover of junior registered nurses is around 100%. In Central
Australia, at Alice Springs Hospital the rate of turnover is higher at 137% per
The Tasmanian Government noted that since 1991 approximately 10% of the
Tasmanian School of Nursing graduates have gone overseas, the majority to the
Womens and Childrens Health, Victoria stated ‘Nursing Agencies in the UK are
recruiting Australian nurses with offers of free return flights to the UK,
onsite accommodation, 7 weeks annual leave, full orientation and support on
arrival, and an excellent salary package; all this is difficult to compete
An overview of changes in healthcare was
outlined above. These changes have impacted on the demand for nursing staff,
particularly experienced staff. Changes in patient acuity and shorter hospital
stays were cited most often in evidence as impacting on the demand for
experienced nursing staff.
Patient acuity in both the hospital and the
community health sectors has been rising. This is due, in part, to the ageing
population and with it, an increase in chronic illnesses and disabilities.
Demand for health services has grown and advances in technology mean that more
complex interventions are available. It was argued that hospitals are
increasingly becoming large intensive care units, with cardiac monitoring and
respiratory assistance and treatment a growing part of the average patient’s
plan of care.
New technology allows rapid assessment,
treatment and discharge from hospitals. For example, there has been an increase
of day surgery procedures. Shorter hospital stays have resulted in patients
moving back into the community with more complex healthcare needs. Thus, the
community sector is also experiencing an increase in patient acuity and an
increase in the number of treatments provided to patients in the home. This has
led to an increased demand for nursing staff outside hospital facilities. The
shortage of other health professionals, such as occupational therapists,
increases the burden on nursing staff in both hospitals and the community.
Over the last decade there has been a particular
government focus on reducing hospital budgets. As the nursing workforce
constitutes the largest group in the healthcare system – over 55% of the entire
health workforce – it has often been the most affected by fiscal constraint.
Women’s Hospitals Australasia & Children’s Hospitals Australasia
(WHA&CHA) argued that this is reflected in the comparison of percentage
growth rates across health professions: the nursing workforce between 1986 and
1991 increased 3.2% (medical practitioners increased 18.3%) while in 1991-96
the increase was 0.5% (medical practitioners increased 13.4%).
The shortage of nurses
The Committee received evidence of critical
shortages of nurses in all areas of healthcare services. However, establishing
the numerical extent of the shortage is problematic. The ACT Government stated
‘with no clear, rigorous and nationally agreed methodology available, there is
widespread concern that it is not possible to accurately determine and report
on the actual number of nursing vacancies either locally and nationally’.
It was argued that the task has been made more difficult as nursing staff have
taken on extra duties and are working more overtime in response to staff
shortages, services have closed hospital beds and data is incomplete and/or
inadequate. In addition, shortages may be more prevalent in a specialist area
or locality such as remote and regional areas. As a consequence, ‘only few
studies have attempted to quantify shortages and fewer have done it
The Commonwealth Department of Employment and
Workplace Relations (DEWR) maintains the National Skills Shortage (NSS) List
which indicates the occupations experiencing shortages nationally and by State
These lists are based on market intelligence undertaken by DEWR and only
indicate the areas of shortage and not a numerical measure of the extent of the
shortage. The NSS for February 2002, which is based on data for the second half
of 2001, identified a national shortage of registered nurses as well as
shortages in 16 specialist areas.
Table 2.1: National Skills Shortage List – February 2002
Registered nurse (general)
Neo-Natal Intensive Care
Registered Mental Health
= National shortage R = Shortage in regional areas
= State-wide shortage D = Recruitment difficulties
Department of Employment and Workplace Relations
The Department of Immigration and Multicultural
Affairs maintains the Migration Occupations in Demand List (MODL).
As at May 2001, the list contained six nursing categories: nurse managers;
nurse educators and researchers; registered nurses; registered midwives;
registered mental health nurses; and registered developmental disability
nurses. Queensland Nurses Union (QNU) stated:
This list is significant given that employers are exempt from
local labour market testing if the occupation appears on the MODL and they are
therefore able to recruit suitably qualified overseas workers to fill
vacancies. Inclusion of an occupation on the MODL is therefore recognition by
the government that a significant skills shortage exists in that particular
In evidence, some specific examples of shortages
were provided to the Committee:
- the NSW Department of Health Reporting System indicate that in
May 2001 the public sector was ‘actively recruiting’ approximately 1 486
FTE positions. At the same time it was using approximately 2 775 FTE
casual staff including 692 agency nursing staff;
- in Victoria, public hospitals estimated vacancies of 600 to 800
in early 2002;
- a survey of Directors of Nursing in Victoria in 1999 found that
almost 60% of hospitals and nursing homes needed more nurses;
- the ANF (SA Branch) indicated that South Australia was between
500 and 700 registered nurses short of nursing requirements;
- in the ACT there are vacant funded positions in both public
hospitals (a vacancy rate of 4% at Canberra Hospital and 6% at Calvary) and the
community care sector with the number of vacancies increasing over time.
In addition, some States have published nurse
labour force projections:
- South Australia: To maintain the RN workforce in South Australia
at its current size, between 650 and 1 350 new graduates per year are
required. In 2000, 389 nursing students graduated and 430 were predicted to do
so at the end of 2001. There needs to be 226 to 468 ENs graduating to maintain
the EN workforce with 239 graduating in 2000. The SA Department of Human
Services is carrying out a full review of the labour force model, as there are
some concerns about the projections made.
- Victoria: Labour force projections in 1999 estimated that with
the current level of demand, Victoria would face a shortfall of 5 500
registered nurses by 2008. Preliminary findings of a study into the aged care
workforce anticipates a shortfall of 7 000 nurses by 2004 in residential
and sub acute services.
- Queensland Health indicated that based on current service
delivery models, the demand for nursing services in the public sector will
increase by at least 30% over the next ten years. However, this estimation is
subject to the influence of factors such as the take up of private health
- Tasmania: to maintain the RN workforce at its current level,
preliminary estimates indicate the need to recruit a minimum of 260 nurses
annually to account for attrition. Currently the Tasmanian School of Nursing
graduates 130-140 students annually.
Projections of nurse labour force needs are
discussed in more detail later in this chapter. Issues related to the
specialist areas of nursing, including aged care, Indigenous nursing,
midwifery, mental health nursing and critical care are discussed in chapters 7
and 8 of this report.
Supply of nurses
A broad range of factors influence the supply of
both registered and enrolled nurses. These factors including the number of new
nurse graduates; the number of overseas nurses entering the Australian
workforce; retention and workplace issues; and recruitment and the image of
The Commonwealth Department of Education,
Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) and the National Review of Nursing Education
provided statistics on nurse students and graduates. The Education Review
stated that the data on supply was not easy to interpret, with differences in
the pattern of commencements and completions in Bachelor of Nursing courses
across the States and Territories. The following general trends were
- commencements of domestic students in all nursing courses
(undergraduate, post graduate and research students) decreased over the period
1994 to 2000;
- commencements of domestic students in bachelor courses decreased
from 11 653 in 1994 to 8 423 in 2000;
- total enrolments of domestic nursing students declined between
1994 and 2000 by 5 893;
- the decline in domestic nursing students in bachelor courses
declined between 1994 and 2000 but the decline has been less marked since 1997;
- there has been a steady decrease in the number of domestic
undergraduate students completing nursing courses, from a high of 9 525 in
1994 to 5 844 in 1999; and
- completions of domestic higher degree research have remained at
about 30 per year, while course work degree completions and other postgraduate
completions (postgraduate diplomas and certificates) have risen.
The Education Review indicated that some 2000 and 2001 data
showed increases in completions for all States and Territories accept Tasmania
and the ACT.
The funding of student places is determined at
the unit level and is converted to equivalent full-time student units (EFTSU).
The allocation of total EFTSU allocated to universities for domestic nursing
students has dropped by about 2 000 between 1994 and 2000. The number of
EFTSUs attracting HECS has declined from 23 121 in 1994 to 19 494 in
2000. Fee-paying courses are largely in postgraduate certificates and diplomas
areas with about 20% in the higher degree category.
In evidence the number of students dropping out
of nursing studies was discussed. Attrition rates in the first year of nursing
studies ranged from 15% to 20% with smaller attrition rates in subsequent
years. Research has indicated that the nursing student retention rate in
university courses of 78% is the third highest of all courses. It was noted
that in hospital-based courses the attrition rate had been 50% in some States.
Issues contributing to withdrawal from courses included:
- wrong choice of course;
- students using nursing as an entry point to university and then
switching to the course that they initially wished to pursue; and
- pressure from other commitments outside study, such as the
demands of full-time or part-time employment, and health and family issues.
The problem of retaining new graduates when they
first enter the nursing workforce was highlighted with witnesses noting the
high rate of attrition in the first years following graduation. New graduates leave because of
problems with transition from study to work. Those who leave following
completion of their graduate year may do so for personal reasons or to travel
overseas although it was argued that many leave because they are disillusioned
and the remuneration is inadequate leading them to seek a career change.
The issues of transition to practice are discussed further in chapters 3 and 6.
Attrition rates both during study and in the
years immediately following completion of study are important for workforce
planning. Research is this area has been commissioned by the Australian Council
of Deans of Nursing and will be available later in 2002.
Australia has always attracted many overseas
nurses, particularly those from the United Kingdom. Nurses migrate permanently
to Australia and large numbers come to Australia on working holidays. Nurses
have been actively recruited from overseas and this is undertaken primarily on
an individual health service or hospital basis and with varying levels of
Government bodies are reticent to become directly responsible for overseas
The Department of Immigration and Multicultural
Affairs (DIMA) indicated that in 2000-01, 580 nurses permanently entered
Australia and 4 830 nurses entered on a temporary basis. There was a net
gain in nursing professionals in Australia over the period 1997-98 to 1999-2000
of 1 200 nurses.
Balancing the intake of nurses is the loss to Australia
of qualified nurses who travel overseas. The enticement of travel is a positive
for attracting people to nursing as a career. Nursing qualifications gained in
Australia are favourably regarded in overseas countries meaning that Australian
nurses wishing to travel can easily gain employment whilst on a working
The Department’s submission provides an overview
of the arrangements to allow overseas qualified nurses to enter Australia:
- permanent entry: nurses entering permanently may do so under a
range of schemes including the Employer Nomination Scheme, Labour Agreements,
the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme and General Skilled Migration. Nurses
doing so have been assessed by ANCI as being at the required Australian
standard and are immediately eligible for registration in this country.
- temporary entry: temporary entry may occur through Business (Long
Stay), Occupational Trainee, Labour Agreements or Working Holiday Maker visas.
Some nurses whose qualifications do not meet Australian standards are able to
enter under Student, Occupational Trainee or Short Stay Business visas to
undertake migrant nurse bridging programs in order to gain registration for
work purposes. Some 3 200 Working Holiday Maker visas and 1 110
Business (Long Stay) visas were granted to nurses in 2000-01.
The Department concluded that ‘in recent years,
the Government has sponsored legislative and policy changes which have
increased opportunities for various employers in the Australian health industry
to recruit highly skilled overseas nurses. The Department will continue to work
closely with the Australian Nursing Council Incorporated and, through them, the
various State and Territory nurse registration bodies to assist them to address
the shortage of nurses in Australia.’
Some submissions argued that the processes for
nurses entering Australia are complex and could be simplified. Women’s and
Children’s Health Victoria (WCH) stated that ‘by networking with our
international colleagues, we know that nurses are travelling to Australia, but
that the visa restrictions in place at present prevent them from working as
nurses, and many are barmaids or fruit pickers’. WCH commented that ‘the
process of gaining registration with the Australian nursing registration
authorities needs to be streamlined’ and that ‘due to the bureaucratic
processes surrounding visa applications for entry into Australia, nurses are
pursuing other avenues, such as UK-based Nursing Agencies’. A Victorian nursing review
indicated that the costs of business sponsorship and migration agents have led
many healthcare facilities to view overseas recruitment as an option of last
The majority of overseas nurses enter Australia
on the Working Holiday Maker visa. However, the conditions of the Working
Holiday Maker visa require that the working holiday maker must not be employed
in Australia by any one employer for more than three months without the written
permission of the Secretary of DIMIA. NSW Health argued that a three-month
period was too short a time in nursing as nurses are only just becoming
familiar with the service and environment by the end of this time. It was
suggested that the employment period be extended to six months. An extension of time would not
only assist with the nursing shortage, but would also enhance the skilled
migration program as many of these nurses may apply to return to Australia as
migrants at a later date.
However, not all witnesses supported more
extensive immigration. Local, national and international health agencies are each
competing worldwide for a limited number of qualified nurses. RMIT described
Countries are “stealing” from each other and it is not really
addressing the problem of getting new nurses or nurses who have left the
profession into the system. It is a redistribution of nurses throughout the
world not an answer to the nursing shortage.
The ANF did not support mechanisms to overcome
Australian workforce shortages that may adversely affect health care in another
country, especially that of a developing country. The ANF stated that ‘an
advanced country such as Australia should not use strategies that negatively
affect other countries to solve local problems’. The ANF did support the
voluntary flow of nurses between countries. The Victorian Government
indicated its support for the recently-signed protocol which discourages
Australian public institutions from, in particular, recruiting nurses from
English-speaking less developed countries, such as India and Pakistan.
The Commonwealth has recently announced that it
will introduce incentives to fast-track applications of nursing staff from
abroad, particularly those who will work in regional areas. Overseas nurses
will be able to participate in bridging courses held in Australia so that they
meet Australian standards and then make an application for a long-term
temporary resident visa while already in the country. There is also capacity to
change visa arrangements, such as move to a Business Long Stay visa.
The Committee supports the fast-tracking of applications
for overseas nurses. Onerous visa application processes should not hamper
overseas nurses who wish to work in Australia. However, the Committee does not
consider that the employment of overseas nurses is an appropriate mechanism to
overcome the long-term shortage of nurses in Australia. While overseas nurses
are currently employed in our hospitals and health services they are in the
large part merely replacing Australians who have travelled overseas to work.
Addressing the shortage of nurses will only be achieved through workforce
planning and implementation of appropriate domestic recruitment and retention
Recommendation 2: That the Commonwealth Department of Immigration
and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs streamline visa arrangements and
simplify the process of recognising overseas qualifications for nurses wishing
to migrate to Australia on a permanent or temporary basis, and to publicise the
capacity to extend and to change visa arrangements.
Retention and workplace issues
There have been numerous studies on the issue of
the retention of nurses and why nurses leave the profession. These studies, as
well as evidence to the Committee, pointed to working conditions as a
fundamental reason for nurses leaving. These included conditions of pay,
particularly in the aged care sector, safety issues, increased workload leading
to stress and burnout, inappropriate and insufficient nursing skills mix, lack
of recognition of individual skills and knowledge, occupational health hazards,
and lack of accommodation and childcare. Issues of recruitment and retention
noted in this section are also considered in chapter 6.
Information about the number of nurses leaving
the workforce is difficult to obtain. However, some indication of the trends
may be gained by looking at the number of persons with nursing qualifications
not employed as nurses. The AIHW’s Nursing Labour Force 1999, indicated
that in 1999 there were 15 056 registered and enrolled nurses looking for
work in nursing (both employed elsewhere or not employed) and 24 571
nurses not in the nursing labour force (not looking for work in nursing or
Evidence was also received that in New South
Wales in 1998, it was estimated some 16 000 registered nurses were not in
the nursing workforce.
In South Australia in 2000, 1 846 registered nurses and 353 enrolled
nurses were not in the workforce. In Queensland, it was
estimated that the number of qualified nurses not working in nursing could
exceed 9 000.
In Victoria, it was estimated that some 13 000 were registered but not
employed in nursing.
In the ACT there are nearly 4 000 nurses registered but only approximately
2 000 practicing.
The estimates above are indicative only. The
pool of qualified nurses not in the workforce is difficult to establish. For
example, the QNU argued that the AIHW’s data was an under-estimation of the
number, as it did not include those who had allowed their registrations or
enrolment to lapse. Changes in registration requirements in some States, such
as currency of practice requirements, and increases in costs of registration
may have influenced some not to maintain their registration when working in
non-nursing occupations. However, it does appear that there are significant
numbers of qualified nurses not in the nursing workforce, which the Nurses
Board of Victoria noted ‘underscores a substantial problem, not in actual
number of nurses, but those willing to work under current conditions’.
In such a case, mechanisms to encourage re-entry are important.
It has been argued that retention is a key issue
in ensuring that there are adequate numbers in the nursing workforce to meet
demand in the future. As noted by the National Review of Nursing Education ‘the
small proportion of the workforce in the less than 30 years of age category
means that those who might be interested in a long term career will be sourced
from fewer nurses than in the past’.
Recruitment and the image of
Nursing was, in the past, seen as a traditional
employment option for young women. Nursing has lost some of its attractiveness
as greater career options have become available for young women and they become
more aware of appropriate remuneration, conditions and career opportunities.
Many nurses would not recommend nursing as a career choice.
Nursing has also suffered from a poor image,
particularly in the media. This exacerbates problems in recruiting
school-leavers to enter nursing studies. The need to improve the image of
nursing is discussed further in chapter 6.
Implications of the nurse shortage
We must not slip into a minimalist agenda where a person’s
entitlement to essential care is comprised of basic services stretched by
inadequate funding and overworked staff. If quality is to mean anything, it
must be the driving force not just of service delivery but of basic funding
allocation decisions, in the first instance, adopted by government budget
Use of agency nurses and
casualisation of nursing workforce
Many witnesses noted that there was an increase
in the use of agency and casual nurses across all sectors of healthcare. Two
factors have contributed to this increase: the shortage of nurses resulting in
dependence on agency staff to fill gaps; and a perception that by working
through an agency, nursing staff can obtain more attractive working conditions
including pay and ‘family friendliness’. Young nurses are also attracted to
agency and casual employment because of the increased flexibility, increased
leisure time and a decreased need for job security.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) noted that
employment through agencies had become prevalent in the 1980s in metropolitan
acute hospitals. This had continued and ‘intensified’ in recent years. The RCN
indicated that critical care nurses and others are currently able to demand
high salary rates and this has exacerbated utilisation rates of agency nurses.
The Victorian Government also stated that competition between agencies for
specialist staff has led to above-award wages, bonus payments and loyalty
programs being offered as inducements, with the costs being passed on to
hospitals in both the private and public sectors.
The ANF (NT Branch) stated that in the Northern
Territory, ‘health and aged care facilities are forced to rely heavily on
agency staff to fill the void’. However, unlike other States a large proportion
of agency staff were permanent staff who sought extra work to cover the
increased costs of living in the Northern Territory.
Witnesses noted that concerns have been
expressed about the impact on quality of care through the use of agency staff.
It was noted that it is not always possible to know the calibre and skills of
agency staff members until they have started work. There were also problems
with continuity of care and the maintenance of clinical competency. Use of
agency nurses also increased the administrative workload of permanent staff,
adding to staff stress:
It is also very stressful for nurses who work in an area–whether
full-time or part-time–to have people walking in and out from an agency or from
somewhere else. These nurses have to orientate those people, get them up to
speed and supervise them. This happens quite a bit, and it is a significant
The financial impact of the use of agency nurses
may be great, with agencies charging a premium to place staff in specialist
areas. Evidence was received that hospitals were paying as much as $265 per
hour for staff. In some instances the agency retains more than 30% of the
amount charged to the hospital. It was reported that nursing
staff from Western Australia were flying to Victoria for four or five days work
with an agency.
One rural aged care facility indicated that its agency staff are paid casual
rates, are provided with free accommodation and free flights from and to
UnitingCare advised that one of its facilities in Western Sydney spends
$45 000 each month on agency nurses.
In the private sector, the Australian Private
Hospitals Association (APHA) also indicated that the inflated prices charged,
agency practices and the onerous contractual conditions of agency staff
‘further restrict the ability of the hospital to recruit permanent staff’. APHA
estimated that the increasing reliance on agency staff added about 11% to total
private hospital costs and indicated that agencies are enticing staff with pay
and conditions which cannot be matched in the private sector. Agencies also
levy a recruitment fee on hospitals offering a permanent position to an agency
nurse who may have worked a shift at the hospital in the previous three months.
The fee is payable even if the hospital recruited the nurse through its own
recruitment processes such as a newspaper advertisement. APHA also argued that
unlike genuine recruitment agencies, nursing agencies do not generally focus on
finding permanent employment for their clients. APHA stated, ‘on the contrary
it is in the interests of nursing agencies for their clients to continue
indefinitely as casual workers’.
APHA indicated that it had forwarded submissions
to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission providing details of
charges and practices by nursing agencies that in its view ‘amount to an abuse
of market power’. APHA has also written to the Minister for Health and Ageing
proposing a national inquiry into nursing agencies.
In April 2002, the Victorian Government banned
the use of agency staff in public hospitals because of the high costs involved.
It was estimated that approximately 7% of FTE nurses were agency staff and that
reducing reliance on agency nurses could result in savings of up to
$20 million per year. At the same time, increased use of the Government’s
public nurse banks by hospitals is being encouraged. Almost 5 000 nurses
are registered with the public nurse banks which operate across a couple of
hospitals or a network of hospitals. The Victorian Department of Health
Services indicated that nurse banks offered flexible work to nurses in the
public sector. There are also better outcomes for quality care because the
nurses listed in the banks are loyal to that organisation and they understand
the process and protocol of the organisation.
The Committee considers that the increase in the
use of agency nursing staff has ramifications for the efficient delivery of
quality healthcare. The Committee considers that at the present time nursing
agencies are acting in a largely unregulated manner and that the charges they
impose and the practices they engage in are a matter of concern.
Recommendation 3: The Committee recommends that the Minister for
Health and Ageing undertake an urgent national review of the charges and
practices of nursing agencies, including their impact on costs to public and
private providers of health services and their impact on the shortage of nurses
Recommendation 4: The Committee recommends that the Australian
Competition and Consumer Commission conduct a review of the practices of
nursing agencies in the healthcare sector.
Quality of care
There is very little to feel happy about when you have been
responsible for up to twenty patients on the ward and thus have not been able
to care for any of them in a manner you feel is adequate.
Many witnesses indicated that the shortage of
nurses in the workforce was impacting adversely on the quality of patient care
provided by the nurse workforce. Coupled with shortages, changes in service
delivery have also acted to exacerbate workplace concerns. In-patients are now
being cared for in their most acute and vulnerable periods and the nurse
workforce must meet the challenges of high need, high technology and rapid
admission and discharge flow of patients. In the community, nurses are also
facing increased numbers and acuity of patients and the coordination problems
of sharing care with family and other support people.
It was argued that if the ratio of appropriately
qualified nurses to patients is not adequate, patient care is at risk. This may
result from longer waiting periods before patients are attended by a nurse, a
greater risk from clinical errors and nurses being asked to undertake duties
beyond their skill level or knowledge. It was stated that employers are
responding to shortfalls in specialties by allocating more duties to
unqualified or non-nurses especially in the acute, renal, aged and
peri-operative fields. There are also some concerns that in both the specialist
and general nursing workforce, there are shortages of nurses with practical
experience who can work without the need for ongoing supervision.
Nursing staff also indicated that quality of
care is affected adversely as time pressures do not allow nurses to undertake
regular and on-going training and professional development.
Professional development of new
The shortage of experienced nurses affects not
only quality of care provided but also the development of new and inexperienced
nurses in the workforce. The Nurses Board of Victoria noted:
A vicious cycle has been established whereby, with heavy
workloads and inflexible working conditions, more experienced nurses leave the
profession. Those who are left have to carry heavier loads and do not have the
time to work with the new and inexperienced nurses. They too leave the
workforce, as they become frustrated with the lack of support for their
development; hence those that remain have to work harder.
Evidence also pointed to situations where newly
graduated nurses may be the only permanent staff employed in a particular area.
The new graduate may find themselves in the position of supervising agency or
casual staff who may be better qualified and have more experience. This adds to
the stress of new graduates.
The increased use of unqualified workers in
nursing has raised issues about the overall state of health provision and
public safety. The NSW College of Nursing noted that studies have shown a
direct correlation between adequate numbers of registered nurses and quality of
patient outcomes. Where the nursing workforce is either reduced in numbers or
skills mix (that is, there is an increase in the use of unqualified workers),
the quality of care is reduced, patients and nurses are dissatisfied and nurses
leave the workforce.
There are also diminished opportunities for experienced nurses to provide
direct, expert patient care as the role of the registered nurse becomes more
managerial. This leads to decreasing job satisfaction, alienation from their
nursing work and burnout.
The Nurses Board of the ACT commented that
unsafe practices due to lack of qualified staff are a major issue for the
Nurses Board. If nurses are unable to meet the practice standards established
by the Nurses Board because of the low number of nurses rostered on duty, the
legislation only permits action against the nurse who has not met the standards
rather than the employing agency that cannot or does not adequately staff the
facility. Nurses become embroiled in a dilemma between maintaining professional
standards of care and fulfilling their obligations to employers with a
significant risk to safe patient care. The Nurses Board viewed this situation
with great concern.
The ANCI stated that there is potential for
unregulated workers to be used to support nursing practice, however it argued
that they should not be used as substitutes for qualified nurses and their
contribution to care should be carefully evaluated. The ANCI noted that
research has indicated that care by skilled nurses rather than unskilled and
unregulated workers, results in a significant reduction of adverse events.
Furthermore, debate and consultation about which settings are appropriate for
suitably educated care workers to work in and their role is needed.
Australia has no mechanisms in place for assessing future
nursing labour force needs, and subsequently, there is no nursing workforce
planning occurring at a national level.
Shortages in the nursing workforce are not new
and some witnesses stated that in the nursing workforce, under and over supply
was cyclical. However, the present situation was described by many witnesses as
reaching crisis point and if it were to continue would seriously undermine the
quality of care provided to users of the Australian healthcare system.
Mechanisms which will decrease the rate of
attrition from the current workforce and encourage the re-entry to nursing of
those qualified nurses who are no longer working in the healthcare sector provide
possible solutions to the current shortage. Evidence from Victoria and NSW
suggests that programs which make nursing more attractive and support re-entry
have a positive impact on the number of nurses returning to the system.
However, drawing on the pool of nurses not
currently working is only a short-term solution: the pool of qualified nurses
is not limitless and that pool appears to be shrinking and is ageing.
Increasing the number of graduates is a medium to long term solution given the
lead time for nursing students to come into the workplace. There is also a need
to ensure that there is an appropriate skills mix in graduates so that long
term needs of specialist areas are met. In addition, there is a need to ensure
an adequate supply of suitably qualified nurses by locality, for example, in
rural and remote Australia. In order to address these issues, adequate
workforce planning is essential.
As noted in chapter 1, many reviews and research
projects have been undertaken on nursing issues in recent years. The report on
recruitment and retention of nurses in residential aged care presents reviews
of current Australian nursing workforce studies. A review commissioned by the
Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) provides a more detailed
source of information on nursing labour force studies.
Workforce planning is undertaken by States and
Territories. The ANF commented that current strategies are ‘based on the ad
hoc responses of the States and Territories and these rarely involve the
primary inputs to the equation needed to produce an accurate or meaningful
result’. The ANF also added that it is apparent that ‘some States and Territory
Government decisions are made without reference to other jurisdictions’.
Commentators and witnesses argued that workforce planning is hampered by a lack
of success in influencing policy issues identified in reports, lack of a
national approach, lack of coordination with the tertiary education sector,
inconsistencies of approach and inadequacies of the data and often does not
take into account the needs of the private sector and aged care sector.
The review of labour force studies indicated
that the lack of success in influencing policy may arise as there was often a
range of options provided in the studies with no clear indications of which one
is preferred for practical policy. The conclusions and recommendations of the
studies may also be very different from current practice or the common sense
judgement of the stakeholders. In addition, there may not be a strong strategic
policy connection between those responsible for commissioning and receiving the
report (for example, State departments of health) and those who are responsible
for implementing the recommendations (universities).
The lack of mechanisms to ensure workforce needs
are taken up by the tertiary sector and the need for a more coordinated
approach were raised. One commentator, while noting that university decisions
have ‘critical consequences for the health and community service sectors in
terms of registered nurses’, stated that ‘there are no mechanisms at national
level and few mechanisms at state level to ensure that these university
decisions impact positively on future workforce requirements’. In evidence it was also noted
that the tertiary education sector is Commonwealth funded while the planning
and responsibility of the public health sector, the largest employer of nurses,
is a State matter. (See also chapter 5.) The Commonwealth funding of the aged
care sector, a very large employer of nurses, adds to the complex division of
The fragmented nature of the health system and the
split roles and responsibilities between various levels of government has led
to calls for greater coordination in workforce planning. Many stakeholders,
including nursing unions, APHA and State Governments supported a national
approach. For example, Queensland Health recommended a national nursing
supply management strategy to address shortages and to maintain an adequate
long-term supply of nurses.
The need for a national approach to nurse
workforce planning was addressed by the National Nursing Workforce Forum which
recommended the establishment of a national nursing workforce advisory
committee; the development of a national nursing workforce strategy; and the
establishment of the position of Commonwealth chief nursing officer.
The Department of Health and Aged Care indicated
that the Commonwealth reported the Forum’s outcomes and recommendations to the
Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC), ‘with recommendations
for national approaches to broader health workforce planning with emphasis on
In response, the Australian Health Workforce Advisory Committee (AHWAC) was
established in December 2000 to provide advice to AHMAC on national health
workforce planning and analysis of information and identification of data
AHMAC requested that AHWAC examine the
specialised nursing workforce as a first priority and in particular the areas
of critical care, midwifery, mental health, aged care and emergency medicine.
AHWAC is currently undertaking reviews of midwifery and critical care nursing.
These reviews are expected to be completed by late 2002.
Witnesses conceded that AHWAC had been
established in response to the recommendations from the National Nursing
Workforce Forum, however they maintained that its program falls far short of
what was envisaged by the Forum’s recommendations. The ANF stated:
The nursing workforce in the postgraduate areas of midwifery and
critical care are currently under review. The model to be used will provide
recommendations for the number of nurses required in these specialty areas but
the essential context will be missing. The recommendations will be made in
isolation from the broader labour force issues that affect entry to nursing
practice and exit from the profession. And there is little point in considering
postgraduate areas of nursing specialisation without first considering whether
there will be a sufficient intake of undergraduate students to meet future
specialist nursing needs.
The ANF concluded ‘our current shortage is the
result of piecemeal and shortsighted approaches to health workforce planning
and change is urgently required’.
Many witnesses supported the need for a long-term
view of nursing requirements and the development of a national, intersectorial
WHA & CHA argued that all aspects of the health workforce – medical,
nursing, midwifery, allied health and healthcare providers – must be considered
together and not in isolation. The Department of Human
Services Victoria expressed similar concerns that the review being undertaken
was focussing on component parts of the nursing workforce rather than the
Other evidence echoed these points. The NSW
College of Nursing stated:
Future labour force needs can only be
effectively predicted by utilising a national approach with a multidisciplinary
focus. Nurses do not work in isolation in the majority of health care contexts
but with teams of doctors and allied health personnel. Patients are important
partners in such teams. As in the UK, labour force needs in health require
scoping through a multi focal lens encompassing all contexts and all workers.
The ACT Department of Health and Community Care
added that it:
...believes strongly that a strategic intersectorial solution must
be implemented if a way forward is to be found and recommends the following.
The first of these recommendations includes that the Commonwealth undertakes
extensive strategic planning related to the nursing work force and its unique
characteristics based on solid ongoing research.
APHA argued for the inclusion of the private
sector in workforce planning because there is a need for ‘strategic workforce
planning responsive to demands of the health system as a whole’. APHA stated
that the private sector needs to be engaged at a State and Commonwealth level
in the planning for and creation of training places. APHA also urged improved
reporting on workforce targets:
We also believe that monitoring of performance and
accountabilities of each of the stakeholders – that is, government, training
authorities and professions – in meeting the work force planning
recommendations of AHWAC could be strengthened.
At its hearing in August 2001, the Department of
Health and Aged Care informed the Committee that health ministers had recently
discussed the need for a mechanism to provide broad long-term advice regarding
health workforce strategies to meet future health system needs. An expanded
role for AHWAC was considered, however, ‘discussion has now focused on setting
up a new body to undertake long-term broad strategic advice’. The Department
went on to state:
The States are the major employers of nurses and the ones that
can do most to deal with the problem. But it is a national problem and it needs
a national approach. We believe that is best done through those
intergovernmental mechanisms that I have described, the various committees. The
new, if you like, overarching strategic committee which health ministers are in
the process of setting up will assist us to take a more strategic view of the
work force as a whole. It will look not just at doctors or nurses or
physiotherapists or whatever but at what are the overall work force needs to
deliver health care as we perceive it.
The health ministers agreed that the new body
would be established as an officials committee to be known as the Australian
Health Workforce Officials Committee (AHWOC). Its purpose is to provide a forum
for reaching agreement on key health workforce issues requiring collaborative
action and to advise on health workforce requirements, as a basis for assisting
AHMAC to fulfil its roles. Details of the role of AHWOC are provided in the
glossary to this report.
Adequacy of existing nurse
In addition to calls for a national approach to
workforce planning, concerns were raised about the adequacy of data currently
available on the nurse workforce and the models used for workforce planning.
At the present time, State and Territory
Governments conduct their own analyses of needs. The ANF noted that the quality
of the projections is variable. The review commissioned by
DETYA concluded that the studies were hampered by inconsistencies of approach
and inadequacies in the data. For example, some major methodological and data
problems identified with some workforce studies include:
- a range of problems related to estimating or projecting future
values for attrition (or separation) rates, including: not taking account of
age profiles; and not consistently determining values for both separations and
- problems of not adequately accounting for graduates’ availability
or suitability; and not accounting adequately in subsequent periods for
graduates unable to gain desired positions in an initial period; and
- projected future workforce size is very difficult to estimate,
and judgements must be made regarding appropriate (or likely) mixes of staff
with different qualifications and work roles, work intensity, industry
structure and work organisation, and other matters.
Witnesses also noted shortcomings in labour
force analyses. For example, among factors not routinely considered in the
models are: the number of students enrolled in nursing courses in the tertiary
education sector; changes in healthcare delivery such as case payments; the
latest Commonwealth initiatives in health and aged care, for example ageing in
place, or health service changes being proposed by State and Territory
Governments for example, multipurpose centres, hospital in the home or the
deinstitutionalisation of mental health services.
Reviews of some of the models are being
conducted, for example, South Australia is conducting a full review of its
labour force model.
Queensland Health stated that it ‘is committed to the development of a work
force planning methodology that, rather than addressing professional groups in
isolation, plans workforce requirements around streams of care...it is a new
approach to planning which has the potential to take into account things like
shifting professional boundaries and changing roles’. The Victorian Government
recommended that research into workforce predictors and planning models be
The major source of nursing data currently is
from the AIHW’s biennial survey of the nursing labour force. The survey is sent
to all nurses renewing their registration with the registration board of each
State and Territory. The survey seeks information on a range of demographic,
work setting and educational information relating to the registered nurse
labour force. The response rate to the survey varies between States and, as
noted by the ANF, each jurisdiction modifies the data collection tool to meet
local needs. Data is not collected over a consistent period (some jurisdictions
collect data on an annual basis, some biennially) or at a consistent point in
time as some jurisdictions undertake the collection over a twelve month period
and others on a particular date. The interpretation of the
information is hampered by the fact that the survey is self-reported which
requires assumptions to be made for the non-responding cohort.
There have been significant delays in the
publication of AIHW data, in part due to delays in obtaining data from some
States. While the AIHW is to shortly publish data based on the 1999 survey, the
most current data available is from 1997. The data is out of date for workforce
Many submissions noted that the lack of data
limited the ability of stakeholders to undertake adequate workforce planning
and other research into the nursing workforce. The Victorian Department of
Human Services noted ‘there is concern in Victoria that [AIHW] data alone is
insufficient for workforce planning both locally and nationally’ and ‘workforce
planning is limited by the paucity of available data on forecasted nursing
demand, vacancies, bed closures and workforce attrition.’ In the Western Australian
report, New Vision, New Directions, it was stated that ‘in the absence
of comprehensive and reliable data, accurate projection models cannot be
developed’. In response to these problems, the WA Department of Health has
redesigned its labour force survey form to enhance data collection and
Queensland Health also stated ‘one of the
key issues for us is having a national data set on the nursing work force that
will enable us to actually plan for the future’.
The Australian Midwifery Action Project (AMAP)
stated that ‘the availability of data on the midwifery labour force is one of
the most pressing issues. The capacity to draw meaningful conclusions is
compromised because of the use of non-standardised terminology and the
incompatibility of databases and data domains’.
In the private sector, the lack of data is also
impacting adversely on planning. APHA noted that private hospitals were unable
to plan for the increase in patient numbers, and were not able to assess the
market availability of nursing staff because published nursing workforce data
for the private sector was inaccurate, spasmodic or out of date. APHA also
noted that the state-based system of workforce data collection is also variable
and open to interpretation.
Stakeholders called for improved data collection
and dissemination. The ACT Department of Health and Community Care stated that
research should also include the determination of a national information
management system that will allow for accurate monitoring of the nursing work
AHWAC has identified the need to improve
existing nursing workforce data collection and has indicated that this is being
pursued as a priority. AHWAC stated that the initial work in this area would
focus on improvements to the AIHW’s national nursing registration survey
including increasing the response rate to the survey and improving the
timeliness of data processing.
Evidence received by the Committee clearly
indicates that the need for national coordination of nursing workforce issues
has been well established. Many reviews and reports have also identified this
need, however little progress has been made to implement a national approach.
The Committee considers that many of the
problems in nurse workforce planning can only be addressed on a national basis
encompassing all sectors where nurses are employed. There has been a tendency
for workforce planning to address different groups of health professionals in
isolation. The health workforces do not operate in isolation and there are
interdependencies and pressures on professional boundaries as a result of
organisational change which must be recognised.
A national approach is also needed to develop an
improved workforce planning model to better predict future needs. There is an
urgent need to improve the quality of the data available on the nurse workforce
and its timeliness.
The Committee considers that the leadership role
to advance work on these matters belongs to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth
already has direct responsibilities for the nurse workforce through its funding
of the tertiary education sector and thereby funding for nurse training. The
Commonwealth also directly funds the aged care sector which is a large employer
of nurses. The Commonwealth also has a national perspective on health policy
and funds specific programs such as Indigenous health and rural and remote
The Committee recognises that workforce matters
are already being considered by AHWAC and further consideration will be given
to workforce matters ‘requiring collaborative action’ by the newly formed
AHWOC. However, the Committee considers that little progress will be made
without strong leadership by the Commonwealth and without significant, direct
involvement by all stakeholders. The Committee is not suggesting that the
Commonwealth should take over the sole responsibility for nursing workforce
issues. Rather, there is a need for a collaborative effort between all levels
of government and stakeholders in the nursing system.
Recommendation 5: That the Commonwealth in cooperation with the
States and Territories facilitate and expedite the development of a national
nursing workforce planning strategy.
Recommendation 6: That the Commonwealth provide the Australian
Institute of Health and Welfare with the resources required to establish a
consistent, national approach to current data collection on the nursing
workforce in Australia.
Recommendation 7: That research be undertaken to examine the
relationship between health care needs, nursing workforce skill mix and patient
outcomes in various general and specialist areas of care, with a view to
providing “best practice” guidelines for allocating staff and for reviewing
quality of care and awarding accreditation to institutions.
Chief Nursing Officer
Many witnesses called for the establishment of a
position of principal nursing adviser at the Commonwealth level and pointed to
the National Nursing Forum’s recommendation that nursing units and chief
nursing officers should operate at Commonwealth and State levels.
The ANCI considered that:
...the contribution of a national nursing perspective to the
health policy process is integral to effective health outcomes for the
community. Nursing leadership advice and contribution to Commonwealth
government policy and initiatives would not only enhance policy decision making
in areas such as health work force and education but also assist in and
coordinate implementation of relevant policy.
The ANF and other witnesses noted that the
Commonwealth has a major responsibility for the nursing workforce as it sets
national health priorities; it funds service provision, including nurses,
through its funding agreements with the States and Territories; it has primary
responsibility for Indigenous health and the aged care sector; and it sets the
standards for service provision in other sectors such as home and community
care and care for veterans. The Commonwealth is also responsible for the
tertiary education sector in which nurses are educated and for the aged care
sector in which the Commonwealth pays for the employment of nurses.
The ANF saw the role of the principal nursing
adviser as providing the Commonwealth with advice on general nursing issues;
contributing to decisions affecting the nursing workforce; liaising with State
and Territory chief nursing officers and the nursing profession generally;
representing the Government at national and international forums; coordinating
national activities that impact on nursing; and tracking nursing initiatives
initiated by other government departments (for example, mental health, aged
care, general practice, veterans’ affairs, education).
The Queensland Nursing Council considered that a
principal nursing adviser would act as a focal point for existing bodies and
informal networks and provide a significant resource to provide for a timely
and effective advisory and policy role. It would also provide greater cohesion
in a sector which is fragmented between specialist groups and where there are
differing perceptions of an ‘employee’ model compared with a ‘professional’
The ACT Government went further than
recommending a single position and stated that the Commonwealth should make ‘a
dedicated investment in addressing long-term planning by the funding of a chief
nurse directorate – and by this we mean a directorate, a group of people, not a
single individual – who will have responsibility for workforce, education and
other professional issues and will work in collaboration with State and
The Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing
currently has the full-time equivalent of 12.15 staff working on nursing
workforce issues. Five of these staff are in the Aged Care Division.
The Committee considers that much is to be
gained through the establishment of a position of Chief Nursing Officer. The
gains include greater coordination of national programs and policy impacting on
nursing such as the education, supply and role of nurses; improved liaison with
State and Territory Governments, overseas nursing counterparts and other
sectors including the private and aged care sectors; and greater recognition
that improved healthcare can only come through a nationally coordinated health
Recommendation 8: That the Commonwealth, as a matter of urgency,
establish the position of Chief Nursing Officer within the Department of Health
At the present time, nurses working in each
State and Territory are registered or enrolled by the relevant regulatory
authority. Under Mutual Recognition requirements, regulatory authorities are
obligated to register or enrol applicants under conditions that are not more onerous
than those imposed by the regulatory authority in the State or Territory of
origin of the applicant.
Many witnesses recommended the introduction of a
national registration scheme for nurses. The WHA, for example, argued that
differences in nursing practice, curriculum development and quality that exist
across Australia are due to the lack of one registration board, standard
registration processes and commonality with educational curriculum development.
This is hampering workforce planning and the provision of an appropriately
educated and flexible nursing and midwifery workforce. Catholic Health Australia
also supported the notion of a national registration process and stated ‘when
it comes to aged care in particular, there needs to be nationally consistent
approaches to medication, distribution and the interface with state
governments’ poisons legislation’.
National registration is supported by many
nurses, in part due to the mobility of the nurse workforce and the problems of
obtaining registration in different jurisdictions. One nurse outlined concerns
nurses have with separate registration:
In Queensland, registration for a mental health nurse is not
separate from registration as a general nurse but in other states...they are
separated. My concern is: how come some nurses are able to practise in one
field in one state without the same qualification as in another state or
recognition that it is a separate field?
...we need to have professional standards that go across all of
the states as well. In my own mind, I cannot come to a conclusion about why it
should be that nursing in different states within Australia means different
things to different people.
Also, the process of registering in different states is really
quite difficult for nurses. Each state asks for a different set of documents
and they are large and voluminous. Also, the registration fees for nurses
within each state are vastly different. Victorian nurses pay...a small amount. In
South Australia it is almost double that amount. In Queensland it is somewhere
Other witnesses pointed to time delays in
acquiring registration in another State or Territory, with delays of six to
eight weeks reported.
National registration was not supported by all
witnesses. Some pointed to the lack of problems with the present system. The
Nurses Board of South Australia stated:
There is very little inconvenience, if I could put it that way,
for people to move from state to state. The Mutual Recognition Act supports
health professionals crossing state and territory borders. We ask for a fee to
be paid; we ask for identification of the licence where they were practising in
the previous state and also that they identify their competency within the
particular area. It is a very streamlined process. Once that is undertaken, the
person is free to practise within the state. I think that the mutual
recognition certainly supports that free movement.
The New South Wales Nurses Registration Board
Essentially, regulation requirements for becoming a registered
nurse in New South Wales are very similar across Australia. We have
cross-accreditation, so somebody registered in New South Wales will be
registered in Queensland should they simply apply for that, with mutual
recognition. That works very effectively. We are unaware of delays in people
gaining registration. We do not have a waiting list.
A number of potential problems with national
registration were outlined. The ANCI noted that people supporting national
registration argued that Nursing Acts vary significantly between jurisdictions
and that the barriers are the authorities which administer the Acts. ANCI
countered that currently, there are more commonalities than differences between
each of the Nursing Acts and what is not often taken into consideration by
those pointing to differences are the objectives of the Acts and the policies
that can be developed from the powers of the Acts.
The ANCI went on to note that, more importantly,
there are significant differences between jurisdictions in other relevant
legislation for example, legislation related to drugs and poisons. ANCI stated
Any attempt to establish a national system of regulation
requires that all legislation which impacts on nurses’ practice be considered.
In addition, any differences in legislation or policies have not generated
difficulties in moving between jurisdictions under mutual recognition
legislation. The processes involved provide for an almost instant recognition
of nurses moving from one jurisdiction to another.
The ANCI also indicated that issues involved in
cross-border practice had been addressed. While mutual recognition provided for
nurses registered in one State or Territory to be registered in other States or
Territories, registration fees still had to be paid in all the jurisdictions
where the nurse was working. In order to reduce the financial burden on those
nurses who are required to register in more than one jurisdiction, all nurse
regulatory authorities in Australia now have the ability in certain
circumstances to consider waiving the fees or to exempt an individual from the
requirement to pay a fee.
The Victorian Department of Human Services also
commented that nursing boards investigate complaints against nurses and that a
single board would be required to do this task under national registration. It
was suggested that there may be problems of a single board being able to do
this across the nation. In addition, problems with State legislation may arise.
The Department concluded ‘we do not have a strong view on it, but would it
really address any of the issues that are of importance to the system? We say
Some witnesses did not support national
registration because of problems experienced with mutual recognition
requirements. The Nurses Board of the ACT stated that under mutual recognition,
jurisdictions must register nurses that they may not have otherwise accepted,
for example, the nurse may be required to retrain in one jurisdiction and not
the other. The Board concluded that ‘the mutual recognition is enough of a
problem without national registration, if we go for the lowest common
denominator, and not for the public safety aspect, just to address a shortage’. The Nursing Board of Tasmania
also pointed to difference in currency of practice requirements for
registration that are standard in some States and not in others, for example,
New South Wales.
The Committee supports the need for national
registration of nurses. The Committee considers that major advantages accrue
from such as proposal. National registration would assist in the development of
national consistency of registration requirements.
The Committee has noted the comments by those
with concerns about mutual recognition and its implication for automatic
registration notwithstanding that standards vary across jurisdictions. In the
Committee’s view this is a strong argument for national registration so that
there is alignment of registration requirements acceptable across all
jurisdictions. However, national registration should be implemented though each
State and Territory regulatory agency. This would enable State and Territory
regulatory bodies to maintain their State and Territory functions including the
investigation of complaints related to unprofessional conduct and incompetence.
The Committee considers that national
registration should be developed under the auspices of the ANCI as it already
develops and maintains national competency standards for both registered nurses
and enrolled nurses. National registration would also provide an improved
mechanism for data collection for workforce planning. As has already been
stated, the inadequacy of nursing workforce data is a major impediment to
improving workforce planning. Through national registration there would be
increased mobility opportunities for nurses to move between States and
Territories. This would be welcomed by nurses.
Recommendation 9: That national registration be implemented for
registered and enrolled nurses.
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