Australia needs to open the door to more overseas trained health workers

July 11, 2022

Opinion editorial by Tom Symondson, CEO of the Victorian Healthcare Association. This article was first published in the Herald Sun.

There’s been a lot of bad news about our health system recently. Every week we hear about GP clinics, hospitals and our ambulance service struggling with staff shortages and being overwhelmed by demand. And as the cold months continue, there is no sign of a respite.

Earlier this week, Federal Health Minister Mark Butler warned us to prepare for a third Omicron wave due to new sub-variants. Combined with our worst flu season since before the pandemic, Mr Butler predicted rising demand for hospital care in coming weeks and months.

In Victoria alone, we currently have the equivalent of a major Melbourne hospital full of people needing treatment for COVID-19 and the daily numbers are surging before our eyes. On 21 June, there were 434 people in hospital with COVID-19 in Victoria. As of Sunday, that number had risen to 671.

Our public health system is juggling thousands of people needing care for flu and COVID-19, alongside the many thousands of people who need emergency care for other reasons every day. And that’s before we even get to the almost 100,000 people waiting for elective surgery.

At the same time, we know that our healthcare workers are exhausted. A recent national study found more than 70 per cent of participating healthcare workers demonstrated symptoms of severe burnout. To make matters worse, we still hear all too frequent reports of patients abusing and assaulting those same workers.

A few months ago, the Victorian Government announced a $3,000 bonus for hospital workers who worked through the winter months. But while that was a welcome boost, it didn’t cover the large number of health workers who don’t work in hospitals but have still played such a critical role in keeping our community safe and healthy – in our community health services, GP practices and social services. And money isn’t everything. We need to create better conditions and increase the number of workers to take the pressure off.

While the Victorian and Commonwealth Governments are investing in more training of health workers in Australia, it will take years to build the workforce we need to meet current, let alone future, demand. It takes more than 10 years to train a surgeon, for example, and more than three years to train a nurse.

We need skilled health workers now if we are to get our system back on its feet. Pandemic related border closures stalled the migration of health professionals to Australia, worsening a historic shortage of staff for many parts of Victoria. And so far, we haven’t done nearly enough to bounce back from that.

Other countries have acted swiftly, giving them a competitive advantage. The UK recently created a new visa class for health workers to tackle its shortages. The Health and Care Worker Visa allows qualified doctors, nurses, social care workers, and their families to settle in the UK for five years. Decisions are made in three weeks and applicants can ultimately become permanent residents giving them confidence and security – something we make almost impossible in Australia.

According to Australian Home Affairs data, it can take up to 20 months for an application to be processed to work in this country and when workers do arrive, it can be hard to find housing, particularly in rural areas where demand is through the roof. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that we struggle to attract overseas health workers – even with the promise of a relocation package of up to $13,000 from the Victorian Government.

The states can only do so much when it comes to international workers – they don’t control the borders or immigration. We need the Commonwealth to act fast by introducing a new, specialised visa for health and community service workers with a fast turnaround, and a route to permanent residency. Without that, we are asking people to uproot their families and move across the world in the knowledge we won’t let them make a permanent life for themselves here.

The recent release of data from the 2021 census confirmed we are a welcoming, diverse country. For the first time, more than half of us (51.5 per cent) were either born overseas or have a parent born in another country. The census also taught us that about a third of Australians have a long-term health problem.

If we want access to world leading health care for ourselves and our loved ones, as well as better conditions for our health workers while we rebuild our domestic workforce, we must live up to our welcoming reputation and drastically improve our international recruitment game. And for that, the Australian Government needs to step up.