Where Did All the Nurses Go? Can Australia find enough nurses to meet the increasing demand for healthcare services?

Healthcare has long since been one of Australia’s most in-demand industries, a trend that’s expected to continue according to the Australian government, particularly the demand for nurses. Health Workforce Australia (HWA) is estimating that there will be a shortage of over 100,000 nurses by 2025 and more than 123,000 nurses by 2030.

The healthcare sector is one of Australia’s largest and fastest growing industries. Australia faces a major challenge in sustaining a health workforce with an ageing population and ageing health workforce. The Australian healthcare system confronts a nurse shortage, predicted to increase in severity over the next twenty years, raising the question, ‘Why is the demand for nurses in Australia so high?’ An ageing population, along with high population growth, it has created a headache for nursing recruiters.

There is a shortage of nurses worldwide and almost every country struggles to find nurses to staff healthcare systems. Health services are under increased pressure, and just recently the Australian government revealed that registered nurses and midwives in particular are in high demand. The population of Australia has more than doubled over the last 50 years, and it is estimated there will be a shortfall of around 31,000 nurses by 2062. Australian government analysts are predicting that the number of Australians aged 65 and over will more than double by 2057. As our population ages, and its needs evolve, the demand of nurses in critical care, midwifery, aged care and mental health will only increase.

‘Why does Australia never have enough nurses?’

Here in Australia, all nurses are playing a crucial role across the patient care spectrum, providing important support to the community still concerned with COVID-19. It’s not widely recognised that nurses make up the largest segment in our health workforce with registered nurses comprise the largest health care occupation. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported approximately 400,000 registered and enrolled nurses, with 33% of nurses in Australia born overseas. Historically, nurses who migrated to Australia came from England, New Zealand, Canada, India, Malaysia and China. It has been reported, some countries intentionally educate nurses so they can migrate to Australia. Quite often, the international nurses not only work for professional development, but most work to send money back home to support their families. More nurses are needed to meet the growing demand for healthcare service, which is proving difficultly and could undermine Australia’s healthcare system.

That’s particularly the case now that Australia doesn’t have many international nurses as they have returned to their countries due to Covid-19. Despite clear skill shortages, studies have shown we are not utilising international talent as much as it once did. The number of skilled visas awarded annually for healthcare positions has fallen dramatically.

The Australian Government is now looking to tap into as demand for hospital care is likely to put unprecedented strain on our health system and our nurses. There are been a good response across Australia, as 3083 nurses have enrolled to complete the refresher course and 14,600 looking to work in critical care. With high staff turnover forces many public and private hospitals to advertise almost constantly for new nurses. Registered nurse consistently ranks as one of Australia’s most heavily advertised occupations. According to the ABC, New South Wales currently has around 70,000 full-time equivalent registered nurses and midwives. Modelling figures show that by the year 2030 there will be a shortfall of around 8,000 nursing staff. NSW will need approximately 13,000 nurses by 2030 but will have only 7,500 nurses available, reaching a little more than half the demand. 2017 saw the lowest number of nurses on 457 visas since 2009, the first record of employees on the visa. While the lower number of overseas nurses in Australia aims to encourage job openings for local nurses, the number of experienced local nurses is simply not meeting patient demand. Another part of the decrease in numbers of nurses is the nature of the industry, nursing is challenging, demanding and stressful. The burden of a nursing shortage impacts those nurses who are working in the field, as more nurses retire and fewer nurses entering the field, the work is piled higher on those left working.

With an aging baby boomer population, climbing rates of chronic issues and a growing emphasis on preventative care, will the Australian healthcare industry be able to keep up with the demand for nurses?  The Australian government needs to attend to the economic issues facing the nursing profession that is and currently troubling us Australians. Perhaps, a rise in nursing wages in an effort to draw more people into the nursing occupation. Nurses’ salaries must be competitive to attract applicants. The State of the World’s Nursing 2020 Report highlight key recommendations and calls on governments to increase funding for nursing leadership, education and job opportunities to strengthen the future direction of the nursing workforce. To ease the pressure, the Australian government is expanding their health offering building new hospitals. These new hospitals will require qualified, skilled staff, hence the need for an urgent recruitment drive to ensure that all services are staffed sufficiently. Whilst the government was initially trying to attract Australian nurses, the demand is such that the search has widened to skilled migrant workers. Australia needs to get back the international nurses.

For international nurses, whether you have high level skills and experience or need to gain additional skills, there are excellent nursing work opportunities available. If you apply for a visa to work as a nurse or midwife, you just need to be in good health and of good character to meet visa requirements and work. To work in Australia, you must be registered by the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Board (NMBA) which is partnered with the Australian Health Practitioners Registration Agency (AHPRA) and is responsible for the registration of registered and enrolled nurses and midwives.

In order to combat the effects of Australia’s nursing shortage, Australia has no choice but to deal with this problem. The Australian government needs to develop effective training solutions and education, and increase salaries to draw more talent.

The answer to the nursing shortage isn’t exactly easy, but failing to address these ongoing nursing shortages will weigh on the health and wellbeing of Australians for many years to come.

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