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Overview

The health labour force in Australia is large and diverse, covering many occupations, ranging from highly qualified professionals to support staff and volunteers. Health occupations comprise workers who diagnose and treat physical and mental illnesses and conditions or recommend, administer, dispense and develop medications and treatment to promote or restore good health.

There are two major sources of data on the Australian health labour force:

  • The Australian Bureau of Statistics Census of Population and Housing
  • the AIHW Labour Force Surveys.

The ABS census covers a wider range of professions but is only conducted every 5 years. The AIHW Labour Force Surveys cover medical practitioners and nurses and midwives on an annual basis and collate more detailed information.

This page presents data from the 2006 Census. For more recent information on medical practitioners and nurses and midwives see:

Growth in health labour force

In 2006, 548,384 people were employed in health occupations, comprising 6% of all employed persons in Australia (ABS Census of Population and Housing).

Over the last four decades the health labour force has increased at a much faster rate than population growth, and this growth has been maintained over recent years: between the 2001 and 2006 censuses, the number of people working in health occupations increased by 22.8%, compared with an 6.6% increase in the Australian population.

Persons employed in health occupations: Australia, 2001 and 2006
Occupation 2001 2006 Change between
2001 and 2006 (%)
Medical practitioners 51,791 57,019 10.1
Medical imaging workers 8,170 10,477 28.2
Dental workers 25,876 29,624 14.5
Nursing workers 193,767 222,133 14.6
Registered nurses 174,268 202,735 16.3
Enrolled nurses 19,499 19,398 -0.5
Pharmacists 13,925 15,339 10.2
Allied health workers 51,046 65,284 27.9
Complementary therapies 10,964 16,354 49.2
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers 916 1,012 10.5
Other health workers and other health services managers 90,267 131,142 45.3
Total health workers 446,722 548,384 22.8

Source: ABS, Census of Population and Housing, 2001 and 2006 (data available from ABS on request).

Females entering the workforce

One of the major changes in the health labour force is the increasing female participation.

  • In 2006, females comprised 75.7% of people in health occupations, up from 74% in 2001.
  • The proportion of medical practitioners who are female has increased from 11% in 1961 to 36.5% in 2006 (ABS Censuses of Population and Housing).
  • The occupations that had the highest proportion of females included Midwives (99.0%), Dental assistants (98.6%), and Registered child and family health nurses (98.6%).

Age profile

The average age of people employed in health occupations in 2006 was 42 years. This was slightly higher than the average age of people employed outside the health workforce, which was 39 years.

In the health workforce in 2001, 17.1% of male workers were aged 55 years or older and in 2006 this cohort comprised 20.6%. The increase in the proportion of females aged 55 years or older (from 10.1% to 14.6%) was larger than that of males.

Part-time employment

The female work pattern of working fewer hours per week than males was evident in the 2006 census data which showed 50.0% of employed females worked less than 35 hours per week, compared with one-fifth of males working in health. The 2001 census presented a similar pattern with 51.3% of females in health occupations employed part time compared to 17.6% for males.

The average week for health workers in 2006 was 35 hours.

Geographic distribution

The current distribution of the health workforce across Australia does not match the population distribution. Moreover, the geographic distribution of health workers in different occupations is varied. For example, the numbers of medical practitioners per 100,000 population, and most health professionals except nurses, are higher in capital cities than in other areas. These issues have an impact on the provision of health services and the way they are delivered to people in rural and remote areas.

Persons employed in health occupations: number per 100,000 population, Remoteness Areas, 2006
Occupation Major cities Inner regional Outer regional Remote Very remote Australia
Medical practitioners 324 184 148 136 70 275
Medical imaging workers 58 40 28 15 5 51
Dental workers 159 119 100 60 21 143
Nursing workers 1,058 1,177 1,016 857 665 1,073
Registered nurses 978 1,056 886 748 589 979
Enrolled nurses 80 121 129 109 76 94
Pharmacists 84 57 49 33 15 74
Allied health workers 354 256 201 161 64 315
Complementary therapies 82 82 62 40 11 79
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workers 1 4 10 50 190 5
Other health workers 624 584 524 447 320 602
Other health services managers 32 33 28 28 18 31
Total health workers 2,777 2,536 2,166 1,827 1,379 2,649

Source: ABS, Census of Population and Housing, 2006 (data available from ABS on request).

Go to more AIHW information on rural health

Publications

A key source of information about health occupations is the five-yearly national census conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Information based on this source is published in the AIHW publication Health and community services labour force 2001 and Health and community services labour force 2006.

More detailed information on specific health occupations, based on various AIHW health labour force surveys and other data collections, can be found on the publications page.

More detailed data and information on mental health-related occupations, based on various AIHW health labour force surveys, can be found on the mental health workforce page.

Further health labour force information is shown in Chapter 9 of Australia's health 2012.