Australia’s lead health officers name priorities for public workforces

By Jackson Graham

Wednesday December 8, 2021

nurses-hospital
All Australian states are looking at strengthening healthcare workforces. (Image: Adobe/Halfpoint)

Relieving stress on the public health workforce, diversifying skills — including in political communication — and holding the federal government accountable for new commitments are priorities for Australia’s top health officers.

The nation’s chief and deputy chief health officers speaking at a Public Health Association Australia symposium on Thursday said COVID-19 exposed weaknesses in the health system but had given urgency to public health funding alongside opportunities for collaboration. 

“I think in the public health workforce — as in every other area around community — what COVID has done: it has brought those cracks and those pre-existing structural issues to the forefront,” said Dr Steph Davis, a deputy chief medical officer at the federal Department of Health. 

State and territory health officers echoed the sentiment, particularly in the ACT and Queensland, where officers flagged challenges with employing skilled workers. 

ACT deputy chief health officer Dr Vanessa Johnston said there had been a “chronic underinvestment” in public health over decades. 

The ACT government has faced challenges employing epidemiologists, turning to partnerships with research institutions instead. “They are so in demand at the moment that we have a dearth,” Johnston said. 

The risk of false information spreading during the pandemic has also made communication, psychology, and political science skills crucial to public health teams, she said. 

“Professionals of the future are really going to have to learn how to engage in a very sophisticated manner,” Johnston said. 

Dr James Smith, a Queensland deputy chief health officer, said the pandemic had weakened the state’s public physician workforce. 

“Colleagues [are] sadly leaving, and [there’s] also the strain placed on those who remain to do that public health leadership and provide the public health medical expertise,” Smith said. 

“Recently we noted 10 FTE public physicians in public health units, which for some other states probably sounds like a lot, but the minimum stocktake we have calculated here was 16 and a half FTE.” 

Another concern is reunifying health workers fighting the pandemic for the past 20 months with health workers who remain focused on public health generally. 

“Discussions are starting … about how to draw what is really a traumatised – and I don’t use that word lightly – workforce and bring it back into the fold and into the mainstream functions of the Department of Health,” Smith said. 

In a positive for public health, the pandemic has “brought people together very well” and created policy opportunities to connect with a “broad church” of expertise, Smith said. 

“But that same broad church, while it is what attracted a lot of us to public health, can also be an issue that can prevent us from coming together in a unified fashion because there are so many disparate associations,” he added.

Dr Danielle Esler, a public health officer for the Northern Territory government, said workforce wellbeing needed to be front of mind.

“What has been asked of the public health workforce during the pandemic is quite frankly more than most of us signed up for,” Esler said. 

“If we are thinking about workforce sustainability the wellbeing of our workforce needs to be front and centre.”

Victorian chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton said there was an opportunity to remind the national cabinet of commitments to bolster Australia’s public health capabilities. 

“COVID might be the poster child for challenges,” Sutton said. “But there are other existential challenges that also require that public health workforce in its full capability; whether it be climate change, or our challenges to biodiversity [and] other things that really impact human health and wellbeing.” 

NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said public health workers and workforces across government needed to diversify their skills.  

“We also need to see the population health workforce … being broadly dispersed across government agencies,” Chant said. 

“I would see success as being the Department of Education secretary coming from a population health background … We need to think about training a group of practitioners that are willing to navigate those broad intersectional components.” 

She said all states were looking at strengthening workforces, anticipating further COVID-19 variants. 

“We know we are going to be battling COVID for years to come and this virus will give us many curve balls,” Chant said. “The learnings from COVID have really meant we need broad-based training, and broad-based skills.”


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