Background: International evidence suggests that a key to improving health and attaining more equitable health outcomes for disadvantaged populations is a health system with a strong primary care sector. Longstanding problems with health workforce supply and turnover in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory (NT), Australia, jeopardise primary care delivery and the effort to overcome the substantial gaps in health outcomes for this population. This research describes temporal changes in workforce supply in government-operated clinics in remote NT communities through a period in which there has been a substantial increase in health funding.
Methods: Descriptive and Markov-switching dynamic regression analysis of NT Government Department of Health payroll and financial data for the resident health workforce in 54 remote clinics, 2004-2015. The workforce included registered Remote Area Nurses and Midwives (nurses), Aboriginal Health Practitioners (AHPs) and staff in administrative and logistic roles. Main outcome measures: total number of unique employees per year; average annual headcounts; average full-time equivalent (FTE) positions; agency employed nurse FTE estimates; high and low supply state estimates.
Results: Overall increases in workforce supply occurred between 2004 and 2015, especially for administrative and logistic positions. Supply of nurses and AHPs increased from an average 2.6 to 3.2 FTE per clinic, although supply of AHPs has declined since 2010. Each year almost twice as many individual NT government-employed nurses or AHPs are required for each FTE position. Following funding increases, some clinics doubled their nursing and AHP workforce and achieved relative stability in supply. However, most clinics increased staffing to a much smaller extent or not at all, typically experiencing a "fading" of supply following an initial increase associated with greater funding, and frequently cycling periods of higher and lower staffing levels.
Conclusions: Overall increases in workforce supply in remote NT communities between 2004 and 2015 have been affected by continuing very high turnover of nurses and AHPs, and compounded by recent declines in AHP supply. Despite substantial increases in resourcing, an imperative remains to implement more robust health service models which better support the supply and retention of resident health staff.