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Migrant children omitted in health statistics

Children migrating to WA from the Eastern states and from overseas are excluded from government planning for child health nurses. By Linda Belardi.

Hundreds of children migrating to Western Australia each year are being ignored in regard to government planning for child health services, a parliamentary report has revealed.

An interim report on early childhood development, said despite the state’s huge population boom, the Department of Health did not keep statistics on the children of migrants aged from birth to five years.

The Education and Health Standing Committee said it was surprised by the finding and recommended an agreement be immediately developed with federal agencies to collect this data.

“Given these children form a significant proportion of the priority client group, the committee considers that it is imperative that the Department of Health develop a mechanism to take account of these children in its planning for child and community health nurse staffing,” said the report, tabled in Parliament last month.

This data should then be used to revise the government’s staffing and workforce planning ratios for child health nurses.

Significant levels of interstate and international migration have been driving WA’s population growth. It is estimated up to 60 per cent of the state’s population growth between 2007 and 2010 is attributable to net overseas migration alone.

The report estimated a further 151 child health nurses was needed, on top of the state’s current 198 child health nursing workforce to cope with the demand.

“When this omission is taken into account, the shortfall in child health nurses is significant,” the report said.

The interim report, Child Health – Child Development: the First 3 Years, is part of a state inquiry into improving educational outcomes for West Australians. In particular, it focuses on the adequacy of child health nursing services across the state, which has experienced a 28 per cent increase in births between 2003 and 2010.

Without a sufficient child health workforce, the report said children were missing out on early assessment and referral for developmental problems.

Increasing numbers of “fly-in, fly-out” (FIFO) families, higher rates of post-natal depression and teenage pregnancies were also placing pressure on already overstretched WA child health nurses.

Anecdotal evidence presented to the inquiry suggested that up to 80 per cent of families requiring clinical support were FIFO workers. Despite an increase in the number of births in WA, the ratio of full-time child health nurses to new births had decreased over the past three years.

In addition to a shortage of child health nurses, resources have not been prioritised for early childhood development in the community sector. The Department of Health told the inquiry that over the past decade funding had been allocated to the hospitals sector at the expense of primary health services.

As a consequence, child health nurses were delivering a minimum service, concentrating on assessment in the first 12 months of a child’s life. However, other stages of development, such as at 18 and 36 months, have not received adequate attention.

“Significant numbers of infants and young children do not have access to assessments at critical points in their developmental journey, thereby reducing the effectiveness of early intervention,” said the report.

Evidence presented to the committee suggested that a very large proportion of the state’s child population could be missing out on the full suite of child health assessments. Only 30 per cent of 18-months-olds and 9 per cent of 3-year-olds received child health checks in 2009-2010.

The report recommended a significant investment in the child health workforce and an expansion of the services delivered by child health nurses to include antenatal contact with a family.

Premier Colin Barnett said the shortage of child health nurses would be addressed in the government’s budget in May.

The report can be read in full at the WA parliamentary website, see: www.parliament.wa.gov.au

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