Background: Residents of remote communities in Australia and other geographically large countries have comparatively poorer access to high-quality primary health care. To inform ongoing policy development and practice in relation to remote area health service delivery, particularly in remote Indigenous communities, this review synthesizes the key findings of (1) a comprehensive study of workforce turnover and retention in remote Northern Territory (NT) of Australia and (2) a narrative review of relevant international literature on remote and rural health workforce retention strategies. This synthesis provides a valuable summary of the current state of international knowledge about improving remote health workforce retention.
Main text: Annual turnover rates of NT remote area nurses (148%) and Aboriginal health practitioners (80%) are very high and 12-month stability rates low (48% and 76%, respectively). In remote NT, use of agency nurses has increased substantially. Primary care costs are high and proportional to staff turnover and remoteness. Effectiveness of care decreases with higher turnover and use of short-term staff, such that higher staff turnover is always less cost-effective. If staff turnover in remote clinics were halved, the potential savings would be approximately A$32 million per annum. Staff turnover and retention were affected by management style and effectiveness, and employment of Indigenous staff.
Review of the international literature reveals three broad themes: Targeted enrolment into training and appropriate education designed to produce a competent, accessible, acceptable and 'fit-for-purpose' workforce; addressing broader health system issues that ensure a safe and supportive work environment; and providing ongoing individual and family support.
Key educational initiatives include prioritising remote origin and Indigenous students for university entry; maximising training in remote areas; contextualising curricula; providing financial, pedagogical and pastoral support; and ensuring clear, supported career pathways and continuing professional development.
Health system initiatives include ensuring adequate funding; providing adequate infrastructure including fit-for-purpose clinics, housing, transport and information technology; offering flexible employment arrangements whilst ensuring a good 'fit' between individual staff and the community (especially with regard to cultural skills); optimising co-ordination and management of services that empower staff and create positive practice environments; and prioritising community participation and employment of locals.
Individual and family supports include offering tailored financial incentives, psychological support and 'time out'.
Conclusion: Optimal remote health workforce stability and preventing excessive 'avoidable' turnover mandates alignment of government and health authority policies with both health service requirements and individual health professional and community needs. Supportive underpinning policies include:
• Strong intersectoral collaboration between the health and education sectors to ensure a fit-for-purpose workforce;
• A funding policy which mandates the development and implementation of an equitable, needs-based formula for funding remote health services;
• Policies that facilitate transition to community control, prioritise Indigenous training and employment, and mandate a culturally safe work context; and
• An employment policy which provides flexibility of employment conditions in order to be able to offer individually customised retention packages
There is considerable extant evidence from around the world about effective retention strategies that contribute to slowing excessive remote health workforce turnover, resulting in significant cost savings and improved continuity of care. The immediate problem comprises an 'implementation gap' in translating empirical research evidence into actions designed to resolve existing problems. If we wish to ameliorate the very high turnover of staff in remote areas, in order to provide an equitable service to populations with arguably the highest health needs, we need political and executive commitment to get the policy settings right and ensure the coordinated implementation of multiple strategies, including better linking existing strategies and 'filling the gaps' where necessary.