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Workforce productivity pathways in health and social care 

Widespread health workforce shortages are affecting a range of operations and reform plans across the health and care sectors. Recent events, including COVID-19, the pause in immigration and low unemployment, have converged to make the shortage acute and, at the same time, accelerated new modalities of care through telehealth. While some innovations born from the pandemic are promising, a worrying underlying trend is the relatively low, and in some cases declining, productivity of labour in the health and care sector. 

Noting the work of the Productivity Commission and the productivity-related recommendations from royal commissions into aged care and mental health, this paper offers innovative solutions for workforce productivity improvement in the health and care sectors, focusing on aged care, disability care and mental health.

Aspen Medical Advisory Services developed the paper in consultation with senior managers and clinicians at Aspen Medical and external subject matter experts. 

The causes of health workforce shortages

While workforce shortages vary with location and sector, it is a global concern that spans multiple industries. The care sector is particularly hard hit, and if current trends continue, Australia’s caring economy will face a shortage of over 200,000 workers by 2050.

While workforce shortages are currently being addressed through better pay, skilled migration, training and education policy reform, the Productivity Commission has identified ‘cost disease’ due to low labour productivity in the caring sector as a pernicious cause of health workforce shortages. Consequently, productivity growth is considered an essential remedy.

The last 20 years have seen a significant slowdown in productivity growth in Australia from over 2 per cent per annum to around 1.2 per cent per annum. The Productivity Commission notes that “today, to be a high productivity, high-income country, it is necessary to have a high productivity services sector.” In no small part, the healthcare and social assistance industry needs to increase productivity as the largest employing industry in Australia.

Royal Commission recommendations

The Strengthening Medicare Taskforce and several recent royal commissions into aged care, mental health, disability and veteran suicide highlighted common issues facing Australian public health and care sector reform. These issues focused on: 

  • quality of life and care in the community 
  • supporting the workforce to provide care more effectively 
  • improving the productivity of the health and care sector.

Workforce productivity pathways

Our ‘care system’ overarching objective is the delivering high-quality and efficient care. If it is to solve the labour productivity conundrum, it must pursue a transformation journey including: 

  • people-centred models of care 
  • flexible, multidisciplinary and integrated configurations of service delivery 
  • technology integration, digitalisation, data analytics and artificial intelligence 
  • remodelling of occupational contours and job design optimisation. 

The COVID-19 pandemic showed that rapid transformative change is 

possible and highlighted the changes required to address productivity challenges in the care workforce. The Productivity Commission suggests the necessary transformation requires showcasing innovation and success stories, leading to the possibility of large-scale implementation.

Aspen Medical’s productivity improvement experience

Aspen Medical has several programs that demonstrate productivity improvement. The paper discusses the following three programs. 

  • The Remote Area Health Corps (RAHC) co-designs and delivers bespoke programs to address the persistent challenges Northern Territory Indigenous communities face in accessing primary care. High levels of support for those new to remote work ensure these professionals are productive from the beginning of their placement. 
  • The rapid establishment of 150 GP-led respiratory clinics to augment the testing and subsequent vaccination effort during the COVID-19 pandemic. Collaboration with Telstra ensured the productivity gains from assured functionality of information and communication technology at commencement. 
  • Through a partnership with Hawaii Native Corporation, Aspen Medical provides full case management 24/7, 365 days a year via telehealth services to United States defence personnel facing mental health challenges. Early access to full case management via telehealth aims to keep more of these personnel working productively.

Toward more productive services

This paper provides analysis and proven ideas for Aspen Medical’s clients, partners and stakeholders, including how:

  • the public, private and community sectors might work better together to serve all their needs 
  • to support our workforce to become more productive in delivering services in these sectors
  • to empower the elderly, disabled, people with mental health challenges and their carers to improve their own care. 

We then provide several concise potential offerings to show how to use the ideas in the paper to create value propositions. These include: 

  • a virtual care offering to the aged care sector
  • mental health offerings to the Victorian Government and the Australian Government Department of Veterans Affairs
  • offerings in disability and aged care to proactively manage health and wellbeing for consumers and carers.

We conclude with a series of discussion starter questions about productivity matters. We seek to inspire others with our ideas and experience in transforming healthcare in the most challenging environments and motivate the healthcare industry to work with us wherever you need us.

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Challenge Accepted | The productivity conundrum 

In this podcast, senior health executive Tom Roth and National Clinical Manager for Aged Care Tracy Huegill join Dr Katrina Sanders to discuss productivity in the healthcare and aged care sectors. The conversation centres on exploring various opportunities to overcome the challenges facing the healthcare industry. 

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