Objectives: To compare the costs and effects of higher turnover of resident nurses and Aboriginal health practitioners and higher use of agency-employed nurses in remote primary care (PC) services and quantify associations between staffing patterns and health outcomes in remote PC clinics in the Northern Territory (NT) of Australia.
Design: Observational cohort study, using hospital admission, financial and payroll data for the period 2013-2015.
Setting: 53 NT Government run PC clinics in remote communities.
Outcome measures: Incremental cost-effectiveness ratios were calculated for higher compared with lower turnover and higher compared with lower use of agency-employed nurses. Costs comprised PC, travel and hospitalisation costs. Effect measures were total hospitalisations and years of life lost per 1000 person-months. Multiple regression was performed to investigate associations between overall health costs and turnover rates and use of agency-employed nurses, after adjusting for key confounders.
Results: Higher turnover was associated with significantly higher hospitalisation rates (p<0.001) and higher average health costs (p=0.002) than lower turnover. Lower turnover was always more cost-effective. Average costs were significantly (p<0.001) higher when higher proportions of agency-employed nurses were employed. The probability that lower use of agency-employed nurses was more cost-effective was 0.84. Halving turnover and reducing use of a short-term workforce have the potential to save $32 million annually in the NT.
Conclusion: High turnover of health staff is costly and associated with poorer health outcomes for Aboriginal peoples living in remote communities. High reliance on agency nurses is also very likely to be cost-ineffective. Investment in a coordinated range of workforce strategies that support recruitment and retention of resident nurses and Aboriginal health practitioners in remote clinics is needed to stabilise the workforce, minimise the risks of high staff turnover and over-reliance on agency nurses and thereby significantly reduce expenditure and improve health outcomes.