Remote NT patients at risk due to high staff turnover

28 Sep 2017

Half the staff working in a remote Northern Territory healthcare clinic leave after four months on the job, two-thirds leave remote work altogether every year and any one clinic can see a 128 per cent turnover of staff each year, putting patient health at risk, new research shows.

Released on the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the study raises concerns about how the rights to health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote communities are compromised by an unstable remote health workforce.

The study’s chief investigator Professor John Wakerman, Associate Dean Flinders Northern Territory, said there was no one simple solution to this issue.

“The work to date suggests a number of possible strategies. These include increased investment in recruiting and retaining local Aboriginal Health Practitioners and consideration of utilising remote nurse practitioners where there are no doctors to provide higher level care and to stabilise the nursing workforce,” Professor Wakerman said.

“We can also learn from successful strategies used for training and retaining doctors and apply them to nursing and allied health professionals.

“This would entail prioritising remote and rural origin and Aboriginal students in undergraduate courses, early exposure and training in remote areas and developing clear career pathways for these remote area health professionals.”

Lead author of the report, Dr Deborah Russell of Monash University, said there was considerable anecdotal evidence about the difficulties remote communities faced attracting and retaining suitably skilled health staff and their increasing reliance on agency nurses.

“This is a landmark study that actually measures turnover from the perspective of a particular remote health service,” Dr Russell said.

“It shows extreme fragility of the remote workforce, confirming that there is a heavy reliance on agency nurses to provide primary health care in Northern Territory remote communities.

“Lack of continuity of care has serious implications for both patient health and staff safety in remote communities across Australia.”

“Constantly having to recruit and orient new staff is also a serious drain on resources and can make it very difficult for these health services to participate in quality improvement.”

The study was a collaboration between Flinders University, Monash University, Macquarie University, the University of Adelaide, the University of Sydney and the NT Department of Health. It is part of a larger program of research investigating the impact and cost of short-term health staffing in remote communities to determine whether fly-in, fly-out is the cure or the curse.

The study looked at data provided by the NT Government payroll and account system from 2013 to 2015 covering 53 remote clinics.

While the study looked specifically at NT health services, the authors say that extremely high turnover and heavy reliance on short-term agency nurses for supply has important implications for remote health services anywhere in Australia.

“There’s good evidence that primary health care is critically important for achieving equitable population health outcomes,” said Dr Russell.

A chronic lack of continuity of care sees people less likely to access primary health care in a timely way and to disengage from their health care altogether.

“And, ultimately, that results in poorer health outcomes.”

The paper Patterns of resident health workforce turnover and retention in remote communities of the Northern Territory of Australia, 2013-2015 published in Human Resources for Health is available at: