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05 Apr 2016

Some years ago, NASA lost a $US125 million probe sent to Mars because their engineers failed to convert imperial to metric measurements when transferring vital data before the craft was launched.

This incredible stuff up is a dramatic (and expensive) example of what can happen if you don’t do your homework, and get the right data.

Back on Earth, reliable data to get workforce planning right has never been more important.

As Australia tries to ensure that our future medical workforce matches growing and changing community need, we run the usual risks of having ideology and buck-passing interfere with sound decisions.

A significant and instructive example of where good workforce data is proving its worth is the annual update of the Skilled Occupations List (SOL) by the Department of Education and Training.

Some background: the SOL is used for Australia’s points system for independent permanent migration. The list nominates occupations that would benefit from independent skilled migration to meet the medium- to long-term skills needs of the economy.

In essence, the system focuses on occupations which are expected to be in short supply. Immediate skills shortages are addressed in other ways, such as through the 457 visa program.

Engineering, construction, commerce and health occupations dominate the SOL. The Department uses labour market migration information and general economic and demographic data to determine what occupations are included on the list. Bodies such as the AMA are invited to comment on whether these specialised occupations should stay.

You would probably be surprised to know that there are more than 30 medical specialties and sub-specialties on the SOL. They have been there for years, and the listing has not kept pace with the times. Quite frankly, the data the Department has been depending on has been hopelessly incomplete and out-of-date.

But things are changing for the better.

As part of the consultation process for the current annual review of the SOL, we recently met with the Department to discuss the medical categories, and our fundamental concerns. Relevant colleges and societies also attended.

The clear message that was conveyed to the Department of Education and Training was that it must look to the data being generated by National Medical Training Advisory Network (NMTAN) - a view that its officials appeared to agree with.

Importantly, the Department had received submissions from its colleagues at the Department of Health whose used NMTAN data to show that a range of specialties were in a position of balance or oversupply, and should be removed from the SOL.

This is a promising sign that NMTAN is evolving into the instrument we expect, to illuminate and help resolve workforce problems. The AMA asserts that all future decisions about the medical occupations included on the SOL should be based on NMTAN’s up-to-date information.

It is important to get this right.

It’s clear that Australia does not need to bring in large numbers of doctors when a ready supply of local graduates is coming on stream.

Otherwise, medical workforce planning will come crashing down to Earth.


Published: 05 Apr 2016