Australia still needs skilled doctors and nurses from overseas with the latest census figures showing that the number of overseas born doctors and nurses has increased in recent years. In 2011, more than half of GPs, some 56%, and just under half of specialists, 47%, were born overseas, up from 46% and 37% respectively in 2001.
The data also shows that 33% of nurses in Australia were born overseas in 2011, compared with 25% in 2001. In comparison, less than a third, some 28%, of the total employed population in 2011 were born overseas. Most of these doctors and nurses have arrived in Australia in the last five years. In 2001, 12% of overseas born GPs and 15% of overseas born specialists were recent arrivals. By 2011 this had increased to 19% for both GPs and specialists. The proportion of nurses born overseas who were recent arrivals increased, from 9% in 2001 to 19% in 2011.
Traditionally, many of Australia's overseas born doctors and nurses have come from the UK but that is now changing. In 2001, 20% of GPs and 29% of specialists who were born overseas were from the UK. By 2011 however this was 13% of GPs and 22% of specialists while the proportion from India had increased. In 2011, 12% of GPs and specialists were from India, increasing from 9% and 7% respectively, in 2001.
Similarly, the proportion of overseas born nurses from the UK has decreased from 36% to 26% between 2001 and 2011. The proportion of overseas born nurses from India increased from 2% in 2001 to 8% in 2011, one of the largest proportional increases over this period. The increase in overseas born doctors is consistent with recent investments by Commonwealth, State and Territory governments into initiatives aimed at increasing the numbers of medical practitioners in Australia.
While there is no nationally recognised ideal medical workforce to population ratio, increases in the ratio of doctors and nurses to the population over the past decade provide a sign that these initiatives are having some effect. However, the medical workforce remains unevenly distributed between the states and territories, and particularly between major cities and remote areas where people are sometimes less keen to be located.
The number of doctors and nurses compared to the size of the Australian population has increased in the 10 years to 2011. Since 2001, the per capita rate of GPs to population increased from 170.5 to 201.9 GPs per 100,000 persons. The rate per capita of specialists increased from 84.6 to 117.9 per 100,000 persons, and the rate of nurses increased from 1,018.2 to 1,195.8.
In 2011, the Northern Territory had the highest rate of medical practitioners overall, with a per capita rate of 377.0 doctors per 100,000 persons, followed by the Australian Capital Territory at 371.2 per 100,000. The ACT and South Australia had the highest per capita rates of specialists at 137.5 and 134 per 100,000 persons respectively. The Northern Territory also had the highest per capita rate of GPs at 267.1 per 100,000 persons, followed by the ACT at 224.5 per 100,000 persons. However the Northern Territory had the lowest per capita rate of specialists at 102.4 per 100,000. Western Australia had the lowest per capita rate of GPs at 183.5.
South Australia had the highest rate of nurses, with 1,451.6 per 100,000 persons, followed by the Northern Territory at 1,328.2. Western Australia had the lowest ratio of nurses, with 1,069.4 per 100,000 persons.
Australia faces considerable challenges in meeting the health needs of all Australians due to the vast geography of the country, and the need to supply highly skilled health professionals to regional and remote areas. In 2011, the per capita ratio of GPs to population in major cities was twice that of remote areas and considerably higher than the ratio of GPs in regional areas. The majority of Australia's specialists, 85%, work in major cities. The ratio of specialists working in regional areas was around half that of the ratio in major cities, while in remote areas the ratio was particularly low at just 15.5 per 100,000.