Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework - 2010

3.10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the health workforce

Page last updated: 26 May 2011

Why is it important?:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are significantly under-represented in the health workforce. This potentially contributes to reduced access to health services. International studies suggest a preference for seeing health professionals from the same ethnic background (Powe & Cooper 2004). Patients were more likely to report more favourable ratings of patient care if the physician is of the same ethnic background. An Australian patient satisfaction survey found that the presence of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctor at a community health centre was a key reason that Indigenous Australians attended the clinic (Hayman 1999). Patients reported that an Indigenous doctor was ‘more understanding of their needs’. Numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients attending the clinic increased markedly following the arrival of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander doctor and other changes in the service designed to make it more welcoming.

Findings:

In 2006, there were 5,536 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people employed in health-related occupations. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of Indigenous Australians employed in the health workforce increased by 2,165 (64%). In 2006, 1.2% of the Indigenous population was employed in health-related occupations. However, this is below the proportion of the non-Indigenous population employed in the health workforce (approximately 3%). While the Indigenous health workforce has grown between 1996 and 2006, the non-Indigenous health workforce has grown at a faster rate and there has been a 20% increase in the gap.

In 2006, the health occupation with the largest number of Indigenous Australians was nursing (1,449) followed by nursing support and personal care workers (974), and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers (966). The occupations with the largest gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians were nurses, medical practitioners and allied health professionals.

Victoria had the highest proportion of its Indigenous population employed in the health workforce (2.4%) and Northern Territory had the lowest (1.2%).

The 35–44 year age group has the largest number of Indigenous Australians in the health workforce. The largest gaps are in the 25–34 and 55–64 year age groups. Females accounted for 74% of the Indigenous health workforce. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians made up 62% of the workforce in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander primary health care services as at June 2006.

Implications:

Improving the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce is fundamental to closing the gap in Indigenous life expectancy. The Pathways into the health workforce for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people: a blueprint for action is designed to maximise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the health workforce through promoting and improving pathways between school, vocational education, training and higher education; and retaining and building the capacity of the existing workforce (NATSIHC 2008a). AHMAC is also developing the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workforce Strategic Framework (2010–2015).

The National Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap in Indigenous Health Outcomes aims to increase the capacity of the primary care workforce to deliver health care to Indigenous Australians. Governments are introducing a range of initiatives. For example, the Australian government is providing funding for 668 new positions over four years, along with communication and marketing activities to encourage more Indigenous people to take up a career in health; and education and training to build the skills and capacity of the existing health workforce. The Australian Government has committed $19 million over three years under the National Indigenous Health Workforce Training Plan to support the Indigenous health workforce.

Improving the representation of Indigenous Australians in the health workforce will require collaboration between the health and education sectors and success across a range of fronts. Educational disadvantages faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children can reduce options for further training (see measures 2.04 and 2.05). Strategies to address barriers to entry into health professional training, and strengthen support while in training, need to be implemented (see measure 3.18). Improved opportunities for employment, advancement, and retention also require attention.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health professionals should have access to employment in a broad range of settings within the health sector and attention to the type of occupation is required to avoid under-representation in better remunerated, more skilled and managerial positions.

Table 63 – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people employed in selected health-related occupations, 1996, 2001 and 2006

Occupation (a)199620012006Period linear % changeRate per 10,000 2006Rate difference (per 10,000)
Indig.Non-Indig.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers
667
853
966
44.8*
21.5
n.a.
n.a.
Nurses
1,258
1,123
1,449
15.2*
32.3
121.1
88.8
Registered Nurses
640
832
1,111
73.6*
24.7
94.5
69.8
Nurse Managers and Nursing Clinical Directors
20
38
56
180.0*
1.2
7.2
6.0
Midwives
27
40
50
85.2*
1.1
6.7
5.6
Enrolled and mothercraft nurses
564
202
215
-61.9*
4.8
10.5
5.7
Nurse Educators and Researchers
7
11
17
142.9*
0.4
2.1
1.7
Medical practitioners
61
90
101
65.6*
2.2
30.2
28.0
Generalist medical practitioners
41
57
82
100*
1.8
19.7
17.9
General medical practitioner
29
47
61
110.3*
1.4
16.4
15.0
Resident medical officer
12
10
21
75.0*
0.5
3.3
2.8
Other medical practitioners
20
33
19
-0.5
0.4
10.5
10.1
Allied health professionals
179
274
441
146.4*
9.8
36.0
26.2
Dietitians
n.p.
18
7
75.0*
0.2
1.4
1.3
Optometrists
n.p.
n.p.
8
166.7*
0.2
1.7
1.5
Psychologists
13
19
43
230.8*
1.0
7.4
6.4
Physiotherapist
16
29
54
237.5*
1.2
6.7
5.5
Podiatrist
6
8
6
0
0.1
1.1
1.0
Speech professionals and audiologists
7
10
17
142.9*
0.4
2.7
2.3
Occupational therapist
n.p.
n.p.
13
160.0*
0.3
3.8
3.5
Social Worker
113
166
269
138.1*
6.0
6.7
0.7
Other health therapy professionals
12
12
24
143.4*
0.5
4.6
4.0
Dental and dental allied workforce
147
155
205
39.5*
4.6
16.1
11.6
Dental practitioner
12
13
15
25.0*
0.3
4.5
4.2
Dental hygienists, technicians and therapists
18
17
19
5.6
0.4
3.3
2.9
Dental assistant
117
125
171
46.2*
3.8
8.3
4.5
Health diagnostic and promotion professionals
164
185
638
289.0*
14.2
22.4
8.2
Medical Imaging Professionals
7
14
19
171.4*
0.4
5.6
5.2
Pharmacists
6
10
9
50.0*
0.2
8.4
8.2
Occupational Health and Safety Adviser
22
25
50
127.3*
1.1
3.7
2.6
Health promotion officers
n.a.
n.a.
438
n.a.
9.8
1.9
-7.9
Environmental health officer
122
114
98
-19.7*
2.2
2.1
-0.1
Other health diagnostic and promotion professionals
7
22
24
242.9*
0.5
0.7
0.2
Other
895
1324
1736
94.0*
38.7
71.9
33.3
Health service managers
21
n.p.
17
19.0*
2.9
4.6
1.6
Nursing support worker and personal care workers
579
808
974
68.2*
21.7
31.0
9.3
Ambulance officers and paramedics
49
83
153
212.2*
3.4
4.6
1.2
Drug and alcohol counsellor
80
96
117
46.3*
2.6
0.7
-1.9
Other
166
276
475
186.1*
8.0
31.0
23.0
Total health occupations(h)
3,371
4,004
5,536
64.2*
123.3
297.8
174.6
Source: National Indigenous Health Equality Council 2010b

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