Doctor shortage looms as baby boomers retire

The retirement of 'baby boomer' doctors and nurses will place unprecedented pressure on Australia's medical workforce in the next 20 years, according to a study by two University of Sydney researchers.

In their paper published in the current issue of the Medical Journal of Australia, John Beard and Deborah Schofield suggest governments should consider offering incentives to ageing health care workers.

Professor John Beard and Associate Professor Deborah Schofield, at the Northern Rivers University Department of Rural Health, University of Sydney (part of the Australian Rural Health Collaboration), say policies and incentives to encourage ongoing employment among older clinicians, albeit at reduced hours, are crucial if the Australian health workforce is to adequately meet the growing community demand of the 21st century.

The authors used previously unpublished data from the past four Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census surveys (1986, 1991, 1996, 2001) to examine trends in the work and retirement patterns of GPs, medical specialists and registered nurses.

Results show the age profile of the medical and nursing workforce has aged since 1986, with the baby boomer generation making up more than half that workforce in 2001.

A large proportion of GPs continued to work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65 years, with nurses retiring at a younger age than doctors.

All groups of GPs worked fewer hours in 2001 than they did in 1986, with generation X GPs working fewer hours than the baby boomers did at the same age.

"If the baby boomer cohort of nurses leaves the workforce at the same rate as previous generations, all but a handful will have retired within the next 15 years. This reflects a loss of more than half the current workforce," say the authors.

"Baby boomers represent just over half the GP workforce and while they tend to retire later, by 2001, those remaining in the workforce typically worked fewer hours. They also make up about half of the specialist population," they say.

The authors say doctors and nurses leave the workforce at different rates because of available differences in their capacity to generate satisfactory incomes in retirement, flexibility of working arrangements, and health status.

They say addressing workplace safety and health issues, or increasing the flexibility of shift work, may be as important to workforce longevity as economic incentives when it comes to encouraging nurses to remain in the workforce.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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