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Striking a balance

Home-grown health workers is a must for sustainable health, UK expert warns Australia.

Australia must focus on ensuring that the numbers and skills of healthcare workers it produces and retains is sufficient to support a sustainable health system, says an international expert on human resources for health issues.

Addressing the future of Australian healthcare at a free public forum in Adelaide last month, Professor James Buchan of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, said Australia and other developed countries' practice of recruiting doctors and nurses from abroad was now under international scrutiny as a result of the World Health Organisation endorsing a global Code of Practice for international recruitment of health workers.

"Australia has relied more heavily than many other developed countries on the international recruitment of health workers. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has reported that more than 40 per cent of doctors and about 25 per cent of nurses in Australia are foreign-born, compared with figures of almost 35 per cent and 15 per cent in the UK," said Buchan said ahead of the forum.

"Australia faces two big challenges; how to get enough health professionals with the right skills, and also how to retain sufficient numbers, particularly to work in remote regions."

Buchan has twenty-five years' international experience of policy advice, consultancy and research on human resource for health (HRH) issues, specialising in national policies and strategies, and has worked as a senior HR manager at national level in the National Health Service in Scotland, as Senior Policy Adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, UK, and as a HRH specialist at the World Health Organisation in Geneva.

If international recruitment is to be effective and ethical, it must be planned as part of an overall workforce strategy, and should ensure that health workers coming to Australia gain a benefit from being here, and that they are able to maximise their potential contribution to their new country as individuals, he said. "It also means not leaving their countries of origin short-staffed and having 'wasted' the investment in training and education."

Australia should be prepared to produce high quality healthcare workers as well as giving opportunities to those from overseas, said UniSA's Professor Helen McCutcheon, head of the School of Nursing and Midwifery.

"Australia has a responsibility to produce the bulk of our own healthcare workforce; that is something that a first world country is reasonably expected to do," said McCutcheon.

"However, we should not prevent people from other countries having the opportunity to further develop their skills in Australia, which, as a multicultural country, wants to provide opportunities for qualified health professionals from overseas. We need to strike a balance."

The forum - An 'Ethical' Approach to Health Workforce Sustainability: Desirable? Achievable? - was presented by UniSA's Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre and Health Workforce Australia.

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