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Provider shortages: Australian policy responses

Partner Institute: 
Centre for Health, Economics Research and Evaluation (CHERE), University of Technology, Sydney
Survey no: 
(15) 2010
van Gool, Kees
Health Policy Issues: 
HR Training/Capacities
Current Process Stages
Idea Pilot Policy Paper Legislation Implementation Evaluation Change
Implemented in this survey? no no yes no yes yes yes


Since 2003 Australian governments have implemented a range of expansionary policies regarding the medical workforce. More university places, more medical schools and more funding for training. Yet despite these efforts, an audit of the rural health workforce released in 2008 concluded that the supply of the medical workforce in rural and regional areas was too low. This led to a Rural Health Workforce Strategy. This survey will report on the background and key elements of this strategy.

Purpose of health policy or idea

It has been widely accepted that regional and rural parts of Australia have, for considerable time, suffered shortages in the medical workforce.  However, by the late 1990 and early 2000 there were increasing concerns that these shortages were also present in some outer metropolitan areas. The shortages were reported to be particularly grave in the area of general practice but also for some specialty areas.

The Government responded by increasing the number of medical student places.  Prior to 2003 this number had been restricted to approximately 1250 per year. However, by 2008 this had increased to 2544 and is expected to increase further in the future. The government has also committed to increasing the numbers of  clinical training places. However, the results of these changes will take a number of years to filter through to workforce numbers due to the long and complex processes involved.


Main points

Main objectives

Initially, the aim of the policy was to address emerging issues about shortages of medical professionals, particularly in outer-metropolitan and rural and regional areas.

A package of measures was announced in the 2003 federal budget to train more doctors and ensure that they are working in areas of most need. Students who take up these new medical places would be 'bonded' to areas of workforce shortages for a minimum of six years.

Subsequent announcements also expanded the number of medical schools and places in rural and outer metropolitan areas, as well as further expansion of university places more generally.

With the election of a new government in 2007 the emphasis of the expansionary workforce program changed. Firstly, it shifted emphasis to training (rather than education). For example, it announced Aus $60 million funding for new vocational training places for the health care workforce (broader than just doctors). It also announced greater funding for training positions for junior doctors to become general practitioners as well as new training positions for pathologists and the diagnostic imaging workforce. 

In 2008, the Government announced the Rural Health Workforce Strategy. The major focus of this initiative included a Aus $134.4 million package to improve rural and remote workforce shortages and better target existing incentives through the provision of additional financial and non-financial support for rural doctors.

Type of incentives

The Rural Health Workforce Strategy builds on a number of existing programs that have been implemented over the years. A summary of these existing and new initiatives are:

  • Since 1 January 1997, overseas trained doctors working in private practice in Australia are subject to Medicare provider number restrictions. This means that such doctors can not access Medicare payments unless they work in designated districts of workforce shortage.
  • The General Practice Rural Retention Program and the Registrars Rural Incentive Payments Scheme provides incentive payments to medical practitioners in rural and remote communities ranging from Aus $2500 to Aus $47000 depending on the length of time in rural practice and the remoteness of the practice location.
  • A new scheme provides grants to assist medical practitioners to relocate to more rural and remote communities.
  • The new National Rural Locum Program aims to ensure rural doctors are able to obtain adequate time for rest and professional development. The program applies to obstetricians, anaesthetists and GPs.
  • The Rural Locum Education Assistance Program provides financial assistance to urban general practitioners who undertake emergency medicine training and commit to a four week (20 working days) general practice locum placement in a rural locality within a two year period. Under the program there is a one off incentive payment of up to Aus $6,000.
  • An existing program that helps medical graduates repay the debts they incurred in university fees should they choose to train and work in rural and remote communities. Currently these debts are reimbursed over a period of five years. Under the new strategy these repayments can be shortened to a two year period dependent on the training or practice location. ·
  • The existing bonded medical practice scheme offers students a greater chance of entry into medical school by providing funding to universities for more than 600 (around 25 percent of all places) additional medical school places each year. If a person accepts such a place, they agree to work in a district of workforce shortage for a period of time (up to 6 years) upon completion of your medical studies. ·Under the new scheme, the number of years that doctors are bonded can be reduced if they chose to practice in areas of highest need.
  • New bonded scholarship of Aus $23000 per year provided students agree to work in districts of workforce need following completion of vocational (postgraduate) training in their bid to become specialist doctors (including general practitioners).

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Characteristics of this policy

Degree of Innovation traditional traditional innovative
Degree of Controversy consensual consensual highly controversial
Structural or Systemic Impact marginal neutral fundamental
Public Visibility very low high very high
Transferability strongly system-dependent rather system-neutral system-neutral

Overall, there is widespread consensus on the problem and the policies contained in the new strategy.  This new strategy is  really a continuation and expansion of a general package of policies aimed at curbing workforce shortages in the regions.  The major political parties in Australia have supported the initiatives contained in the new strategy.

The range of initiatives contained in the new strategy can be implemented elsewhere but does require a joint health and education approach.

Political and economic background

The change in the perception that Australia had an oversupply (albeit a maldistributed) in its medical workforce coincided with a general increase in the out-of-pocket costs for health care services and persistently long waiting times for some elective surgery procedures. These two factors mean that there was a problem which needed to be solved politically. One of the political responses has been to blame a workforce shortage and therefore the answer is to increase the numbers. 

The issue of waiting times and out-of-pocket costs go beyond that of workforce numbers.  The interaction between public and private provision of health care, tight budgetary controls on public hospital funding and Medicare benefits as well as an increase in the demand for services are likely to have contributed to these problems. 

In reality, these perceptions of shortage have never been well researched. By international standards, Australia has fewer doctors per head of capita than the OECD average but is ahead of countries such as the UK, Canada and the US.  But international comparisions such as these do not take into account the health care needs of the population and the geography of the land. 

Purpose and process analysis

Current Process Stages

Idea Pilot Policy Paper Legislation Implementation Evaluation Change
Implemented in this survey? no no yes no yes yes yes

Origins of health policy idea

Several papers and reports were published in the 1990s and early 2000s questioned Australia's health workforce capacity.  A recent paper by the Australian Parliamentary Library summarises the origins of how the problems came into the public debate and how this transplated into policy action. It states that: 

  • Between 1986 and 1991 the number of general practitioners grew only slightly, and at a lower rate than the population as a whole.
  • Initially, however, the consensus was that rather than there being actual shortages in the medical workforce, there was a maldistribution between the bush and metropolitan areas.
  • In 1996, the Howard Government introduced legislation and schemes intended to address that maldistribution. These initiatives included requiring overseas trained doctors to work in rural and remote areas.
  • Evidence began to emerge in the late 1990s and early 2000s that shortages were also commonplace in the outer metropolitan areas of the capital cities.
  • At that time, it was argued that government policy initiatives were simply short term solutions, particularly with reference to general practitioner shortages; the introduction of medium and long term solutions was crucial to solving the problem overall. Such solutions, according to one study, included funding more training places for general practitioners.
  • In 2003, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) argued also that not only were there grave shortages of general practitioners in outer metropolitan areas, but other specialties in these areas were in short supply.

Initiators of idea/main actors

  • Government
  • Providers
  • Others

Stakeholder positions

Numerous government reports and commission have commented on the maldistribution of Australia's medical workforce. The conclusions of these reports have been echoed by the various medical colleges, patient groups and the Australian Medical Association who have, at times, applied pressure on political parties via the media.

Whilst there has been no formal response from student bodies such as the National Union of Students (NUS), these initiatives are in agreement with some of their previous lobbying efforts. In particular, greater access to university places for rural and regional students is an issue that the NUS has been very vocal on in the past.


Actors and positions

Description of actors and their positions
Prime ministervery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed
Minister for Healthvery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed
Specialist collegesvery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed
General practitionersvery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed
Australian Medical Associationvery supportivevery supportive strongly opposed
Studentsvery supportivesupportive strongly opposed

Influences in policy making and legislation


Actors and influence

Description of actors and their influence

Prime ministervery strongvery strong none
Minister for Healthvery strongvery strong none
Specialist collegesvery strongstrong none
General practitionersvery strongstrong none
Australian Medical Associationvery strongstrong none
Studentsvery strongweak none
Specialist colleges, General practitioners, Australian Medical AssociationPrime minister, Minister for HealthStudents

Positions and Influences at a glance

Graphical actors vs. influence map representing the above actors vs. influences table.

Adoption and implementation

The new package of initiatives are fairly easily implemented because they build on existing programs and are within the responsibilities of the Australian Government. 

Where the federal governement is likely to erncounter greater difficulty is in the area of training.  This is because specialist training, aside from general practice,  falls largely outside of its control. 

As reported in the Australian Parliamentary Library Background Note (2009), twelve major specialist medical colleges in Australia determine the standards of education and training and, in most cases, also determine the number of training places. Once trainees have been accepted into a specialist training program, they are required to apply for hospital registrar positions which have been accredited by a relevant college. These positions are generally in public hospitals.  Thus the federal government relies on the colleges to offer training places and on state and territory government to support such places in their public hospitals.   There have been suggestions for a number of years that various colleges deliberately restrict entry. These types of allegations led the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to consider if the trainee selection practices of one college, the Royal Australian College of Surgeons (RACS), were in breach of the Trade Practices Act 1974 Cth. After some investigations, in 2003, the ACCC was reportedly aghast at the mean-spirited way surgeons limited people entering the profession.  However, the regulator granted the college an exemption from prosecution because its selection practices were deemed ultimately to be in the public interest.   These issues have arisen from time to time and may require governments to develop new policies on medical training by encouraging university medical schools to provide alternative options for specialists training.

Monitoring and evaluation

Several publications have been released which have reviewed certain aspects of the government's workforce policies (see for example 

Results of evaluation

An audit of the health workforce in rural and regional Australia found that Australians living in regional and remote areas continue to be disadvantaged in their access to health professionals compared to their urban counterparts. There continues to be a maldistribution of health professionals relative to population in all major health professions except perhaps for nursing. Despite some success, the growth in the supply of medical practitioners has not kept pace with the growth in the general population. The gains in distribution in rural and remote areas over recent years have been in a large part due to the increased numbers of overseas trained doctors working in these areas.

Expected outcome

It will take considerable time for these policies to filter through and impact on workforce shortages in the regions. This is due to the long time lag between education and qualification as a medical provider.

Not surprisingly, the initiative that has had the most immediate impact on the regional workforce has been to encourage overseas trained doctors to practise in areas of high need. Overall, one third of doctors in Australia have been trained overseas but in rural areas this percentage is over 40 percent. It is anticipated that the supply of medical practitioners will continue to rely upon the recruitment of overseas trained professionals in the immediate and medium term future.  

The more recent announcements build on existing incentives to attract newly educated and trained doctors to the regions. In particular, the new incentives entice new practitioners to areas of greatest need. Whilst these initiatives are likely to have some impact on workforce numbers in the long term, they may also raise future issues around quality and safety. This is because rural and regional areas are likely to have a greater concentration of young and inexperienced doctors with fewer available resources for professional development and mentoring.

Furthermore, aside from the overseas trained doctor initiatives, these policies do little to address short term problems - although the General Practice Rural Incentives Program may create some financial incentives for doctors to stay in the regions or move to areas where there are shortages.

Impact of this policy

Quality of Health Care Services marginal neutral fundamental
Level of Equity system less equitable four system more equitable
Cost Efficiency very low very low very high

A greater reliance of overseas trained doctors in rural and remote areas has let to some concerns over the lack of support for overseas trained doctors in terms of training and orientation to the Australian health system and culture. Should the policies be succesful in reducing the workforce shortage in rural and remote areas, the health care system will be more equitable. 

There is considerable doubt around the cost-effectiveness of some measures.  Firstly, there is little evidence that some of these initiatives will work in terms of redistributing the workforce to areas of undersupply. Secondly, some of the incentives on offer will go to doctors who are already in areas of under-supply. This means that a large proportion of allocated funding will go to existing rural providers, without necessarily increasing rural doctor supply.  Finally, these arrangements need to be placed in the context of a broader rural health care plan. There is a need to examine how health care services can be delivered more equitably and efficiently in rural and remote areas. This may entail different care models for regions compared to metropolitan areas. Such alternative models can then become the basis of a more comprehensive workforce strategy.   


Sources of Information

Report on the Audit of Health Workforce in Rural and Regional Australia available at

Details on the new rural health workforce strategy available at

Details of previous government commitments available in various budget papers at

A background note from the Australian Parliamentary Library on medical education and training, and is available at



Author/s and/or contributors to this survey

van Gool, Kees

Suggested citation for this online article

van Gool, Kees. "Provider shortages: Australian policy responses". Health Policy Monitor, April 2010. Available at