The number of medical practitioners has risen, but the overall supply in terms of full-time equivalents (FTEs) per 100,000 population has fallen as doctors choose to work fewer hours, says a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Head of the AIHW's Labour Force and Rural Health Unit, Glenice Taylor, says that the number of doctors in Australia rose by 12% from 48,200 to 54,000 practitioners between 1997 and 2002.
'But they worked an average of 44.4 hours per week in 2002, compared with 47.6 hours in 1997,' Ms Taylor said.
'Converting to the equivalent number of full-time practitioners based on a 45-hour working week, and taking population growth into account, this translated into a decline in supply from 275 to 271 FTE per 100,000 population over the period.'
Ms Taylor says that reasons behind the trend towards working fewer hours are complex, but may well have been influenced by an ageing workforce, a growing proportion of female doctors and a general resistance to working long hours (more than 50 a week).
'All employed medical practitioners (that is, clinicians and non-clinicians) were, on average, older in 2002 than in 1997 (46.4 years compared to 44.7 years), and the proportion of female doctors grew from 28.0% to 31.6%,' she said, noting that female doctors traditionally work fewer hours than their male counterparts - in 2002 the average difference being 10.4 hours per week.
'Even so,' she added, 'the average hours worked dropped more sharply for male doctors (from 50.7 to 47.7 per week) than for female doctors (from 39.7 to 37.3 per week).'
The AIHW report, Medical Labour Force 2002, also shows that the proportion of doctors working 50 hours or more per week fell from 51.1% to 44.3% between 1997 and 2002.
Although the overall supply of doctors nationwide fell, there were optimistic signs for the bush-increases were seen in FTE rates for remote and very remote areas.
The largest of these rises was in very remote regions, where supply rose from 112 to 141 FTE practitioners per 100,000 population. In remote regions the rise was from 129 to 140.
'Practitioners in remote and very remote areas were, on average, 2 to 3 years younger and worked 3 to 5 hours more per week than the average,' says Ms Taylor, 'and paradoxically, the proportion of female practitioners was higher in those regions than elsewhere.'
Other key findings in the report include:
- There was a drop in the supply of primary care practitioners over the period, from 108 to 101 per 100,000 population. These doctors, who are mainly GPs, comprise some 40% of all doctors.
- The average age of these primary care doctors rose from 46.3 to 48.9, the proportion who were female rose from 33.0% to 36.3% and their average hours fell from 44.7 per week in 1997 to 41.1 per week in 2002.
- There were increases in supply of primary care doctors in the two territories but decreases in supply in all the states.