Calls to increase Indigenous Health Workers

29 January 2019

The critical workforce of Indigenous Health Workers is not growing, according to a joint study by The Australian National University (ANU) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers Association (NATSIHWA).

The study, based on Census data, shows a 13 per cent decline in the proportion of Indigenous Health Workers aged 15-24, 25-34 and 34-44.

"Whilst we found an increase of 338 Indigenous Health Workers nationally, we also found this not commensurate with population growth," said Research lead Alyson Wright, from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU.

"We found a considerable decline in numbers of younger Indigenous Health Workers.

"There are many reasons why this could be case - we know that workforce is aging, but there are also fewer opportunities to gain the Health Worker qualifications."

The study found increases in Health Workers in Queensland and New South Wales, but large declines of workers in the Northern Territory.

"We need to find out more about what is working in Queensland and New South Wales. The 11.2 per cent decrease in overall proportion of Health Workers located in the Northern Territory is concerning, given the need to improve health outcomes in this jurisdiction," said Ms Wright.

Karl Briscoe, CEO of National and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker Association (NATSIHWA) said the role is unique. 

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers are the conduit between the community and the health services," said Karl Briscoe.

"There is nothing else like being an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker.

"It is the world's first ethnic based health profession that has national training curriculum as well as national regulation sitting behind it."

Researchers say there is growing evidence that the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Health workers helps facilitate culturally appropriate care.

"We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers are extremely important for improving the health outcomes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities," said Mr Briscoe.

"We need research to identify the ratio to increase to ensure cultural safety and to respect cultural sensitivities around men's health.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers are critical to delivering culturally appropriate care. They can reduce communication gaps, improve follow-up practices, help with medical advice and provide cultural education."

Researchers in the study analysed data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Census in 2006, 2011 and 2016.

The findings will be published in Australian New Zealand Journal of Public Health on 29 January.