AHPRA fast-tracks IMG pathway to boost workforce

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

20/12/2022 2:45:40 PM

The move follows strong RACGP advocacy and will see the medical workforce bolstered at a time of critical need.

A doctor booking a flight online.
The number of international doctors arriving in Australia is back to pre-pandemic levels, according to AHPRA.

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) has announced new actions to bolster the medical workforce, including moves to cut the time to safely assess applications for international medical graduates (IMGs).
The update comes in the wake of growing concerns over workforce maldistribution and an impending GP shortage, with only one in eight medical graduates choosing to pursue general practice as a first preference – an issue further compounded by the closure of international borders during the first two years of the pandemic.
However, the latest data on internationally trained healthcare worker applicants, issued by the agency, show numbers appear to be returning close to pre-pandemic levels.
In 2021–22, 2985 IMG applications to work in Australia were registered – up 41% from 2020–21. And the upward trend has continued, with 2083 IMGs already having registered in the first three months of 2022–23.
AHPRA CEO Martin Fletcher said all states and territories stand to benefit from the increase.
‘At a time of unprecedented demand there are thousands of fully qualified doctors, nurses and midwives who can ease the strain on Australia’s stretched health systems and help patients receive the care they need sooner,’ he said.
‘Public safety is always our priority, and this means not only ensuring patients have access to a practitioner when they need them, but upholding robust requirements so they can be assured of the training and qualifications of the health practitioners they are seeing.’
In addition to IMGs, the increased interest extends to internationally qualified nurses and midwives (IQNMs), with registrations up 35% over the past year.
According to AHPRA’s data, the rise in internationally qualified healthcare workers coupled with record levels of local practitioner graduates means there are now at least 850,000 healthcare workers in Australia – more than ever before and 14.5% higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Since the arrival of COVID, the RACGP has been calling for fast-tracked entry for internationally trained GPs ready to work in the communities that need them most.
College President Dr Nicole Higgins welcomed AHPRA’s commitment to improving numbers.
‘Australia’s primary care workforce is suffering severe shortages, [and] I am very pleased that AHPRA has listened to us and acted,’ she said.
‘This is a positive step in the right direction to boosting the medical workforce, including GPs, and improving access to care for communities in need.’
Dr Higgins, who works as a GP in regional Queensland, says there is a maldistribution of GPs in Australia, with the most severe shortages in rural and remote communities.
‘I am seeing the impact of general practices being forced to close because they have no GPs, and it is truly devastating for their local communities,’ she said.
‘Doctors who have come to Australia to work as GPs are an integral part of our healthcare system in rural and remote Australia, and they account for 50% of today’s GP workforce Australia-wide.’
There are a number of requirements applicants need to meet before being registered to work as a medical professional in Australia, including proof of training and qualifications, English language skills, international criminal history checks and Australian employer documentation.
However, according to AHPRA, more than 60% of international applications are missing critical information.
To streamline the process and overcome delays, AHPRA has taken a number of steps, including a new webpage to provide clear information to offshore applicants and improved coordination with major employers.
The agency has also taken a new approach to initial risk assessments and increased senior staff on the frontline to assess applications at their earliest stage in an attempt to detect issues earlier in the process and cut the time taken to request additional information from four weeks to just seven days.
But when it comes to boosting the rural workforce in particular, RACGP Rural Chair Associate Professor Michael Clements believes more could still be done to support IMGs coming to Australia.
‘This includes reinstating the subsidy for IMGs’ training to achieve Fellowship as a specialist GP,’ he said.
‘If the [Federal] Government subsidised the Fellowship Support Program for these doctors it would show that they are serious about rebuilding general practice care for rural and remote patients.
‘We have also been advocating for a national body to coordinate the process for overseas trained doctors applying to work in Australia, such as the Rural Workforce Agencies Network. This would streamline the process and make it much simpler and faster for these doctors to get to the communities that need them.’
And while Dr Higgins has welcomed AHPRA’s latest attempts at reducing red tape, she says the Government needs ‘to do much more’ to secure long-term nationwide patient access to general practice care.
‘Too many of Australia’s political leaders just don’t get it – GPs are the solution to Australia’s health crisis,’ she said.
‘They need to wake up and recognise that there is no substitute for GPs – GPs are the only practitioners who provide ongoing comprehensive and holistic care.
‘The evidence shows investing in general practice care improves patient health and wellbeing outcomes and reduces the need for expensive hospital care.’
Despite general practice providing the vast majority of health services to Australian patients annually, it receives just 8% of total health expenditure, and has long been in decline.
‘As RACGP President, I will continue to push hard for Government to invest in high-quality patient care through general practice and ensure general practice is an attractive career choice,’ Dr Higgins said.
‘Because people across Australia deserve access to world class care for generations to come, regardless of their postcode or income.’
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