What’s changed with health practitioner regulation in Australia: ‘safer in the knowledge’

Australia’s national system for regulation of health practitioners is unique internationally. In part this reflects its national reach and multi professional focus. It is also because of its legislated objectives which relate to both patient safety and the ongoing development of the health workforce.

More than 650,000 health practitioners across 14 professions are registered in the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme (National Scheme) which has been in place since 1 July 2010. In an environment of significant change in healthcare and great complexity, the way we ensure health practitioners are qualified and safe to practice is of great interest to the community. This trend is evident not only in Australia but many other countries.

In establishing one National Scheme for all registered health practitioners with a dual focus on patient safety and workforce, Australia’s Health Ministers have created a solid platform for ensuring that regulation does not create unnecessary barriers and wherever it should, can enable the continued development of the flexibility, responsiveness and sustainability of the Australian registered health workforce.

How is this achieved?

Firstly, the National Scheme enables mobility of registered health practitioners through national registration. Put simply, most registered health practitioners can register once and practice Australia-wide. Prior to the National Scheme, registration was based in each state and territory which made it harder for health practitioners to move around Australia to work when and where they were needed without extra costs.

Secondly, there are now national standards for registration within professions and greater consistency across professions. We have made significant progress towards improved consistency in registration standards which include English language requirements, criminal history, recency of practice and guidelines on supervision. Multi-professional regulatory approaches can enable a more flexible health workforce through harmonisation of standards and also support professionalism and teamwork across the various providers of healthcare.

Thirdly, national registration is underpinned by the national online register (see www.ahpra.gov.au) which provides the Australian community with an up-to-date, free, single point of information about every registered health practitioner. Building community awareness, understanding and use of the national register has an important role to play in helping people make better informed decisions.

Finally, the scheme provides invaluable data about the registered health workforce which informs health statistics and policy. This includes information collected in an annual workforce survey as part of the registration renewal process which health practitioners undertake each year. Australia is uniquely placed internationally in terms of the depth and scope of the workforce data now available through the National Scheme.

How do we build on these strengths to respond to the challenges facing Australia’s health system to ensure a health workforce which can achieve better outcomes for patients and consumers?

Firstly, we want to build on the National Scheme’s flexible model of regulation to support health and workforce priorities. AHPRA and National Boards continue to work with governments, employers and the professions to identify opportunities for registered health practitioners to practice at their full potential. The National Law’s protection of title rather than practice does not restrict the redesign of health services, where it is safe, practitioners have the necessary competence and there is benefit to patients. This means that care can be provided by the most suitable and skilled health practitioner rather than maintaining historical divisions between health practitioners which can add difficulty or cost to those in need of healthcare.

Secondly, we want to improve health workforce data. We continue to work with the Australian Department of Health to improve the suitability, consistency and quality of data available on the Australian health workforce. A current focus is on improving the timeframe in which data collected is available to be analysed. Currency of data is often a key factor for its effective usage. Having the data is not enough; we need to make sure it is being used to inform policy, planning and research. This data assists governments in making decisions about current and future health services to meet the changing community and health needs.

Thirdly, we want to encourage further innovation and flexibility in education and training.

As technology changes and collaborative models of care evolve, we need to ensure the health practitioners of the future are being well prepared. Our standards to accredit the educational programs that prepare doctors, nurses and others for the future will be critical to achieving this. Most accreditation standards have now moved to look at education outcomes and assessment based on risk, which facilitates innovation and flexibility in education and training by enabling education providers to meet the standards in a range of ways. The further government led review of accreditation functions in the National Scheme will be an opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of this important function.

The National Scheme has made a significant contribution to Australia’s healthcare workforce since its inception six years ago. We have more registered health practitioners in all professions nationally. National Standards have allowed registered health practitioners greater flexibility and mobility to meet healthcare needs, Australia-wide. But this is just the starting point. We want to play our part in making sure that our national health workforce is sustainable, capable of meeting the current and future health needs of the Australian community. To succeed we will continue to work collaboratively with all of our partners – governments, health professions, education providers, consumers, peak bodies and advocates – to achieve a healthier future for all Australians.