The number of medical practitioners working in Australia continues to rise, but doctors are choosing to work fewer hours, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).
Head of AIHW's Labour Force and Rural Health Unit, Glenice Taylor, said that the number of doctors in Australia rose by 10% from 51,106 to 56,207 practitioners between 2000 and 2003.
'But they worked an average of 44.4 hours per week in 2003, compared with 45.5 hours in 2000,' Ms Taylor said.
'This translates into an increase in supply from 270 to 279 full-time equivalent (FTE) practitioners per 100,000 population over the period.'
Similarly, there was a 4% growth in the number of primary care practitioners (mainly GPs), from 21,081 to 21,919. This was also accompanied by a drop from 41.9 to 40.9 hours worked per week, resulting in an overall drop in supply from 102 to 100 FTE per 100,000 population.
Ms Taylor says that reasons behind the trend towards working fewer hours are complex, and may have been influenced by an ageing workforce and a growing proportion of female doctors. Traditionally, both these groups have worked fewer hours than their male counterparts.
'Employed doctors were, on average, older in 2003 than in 2000 (45.9 years compared to 45.6 years), and the proportion who were female grew from 30.1% to 31.9%,' Ms Taylor said.
'Independent of demographic factors, however, there appeared to be a general resistance to working long hours,' she said.
The AIHW report, Medical Labour Force 2003, shows that the proportion of doctors working 50 hours or more per week fell from 47.9% to 43.7% between 2000 and 2003. For primary care practitioners, the proportion dropped from 37.7% to 33.9%.
There were optimistic signs for regional and remote areas, with increases in FTE rates across all geographic areas-from rises of 12 FTE per 100,000 population in major cities and in outer regional areas, to a rise of 5 FTE per 100,000 in very remote areas - mainly due to increases in the supply of specialists and hospital non-specialists.
'Practitioners in remote and very remote areas were, on average, 1 to 2 years younger and worked about 6 hours more per week than the average,' Ms Taylor said.
Other key findings in the report include:
- All states and territories experienced an increase in supply of medical practitioners- except Western Australia, which fell from 245 FTE per 100,000 in 2000 to 232 in 2003.
- The supply of primary care practitioners increased in inner and outer regional areas, but decreased in all other regions, although this was offset by increases in the supply of hospital non-specialists, who also provide primary care.
- The average age of primary care practitioners increased by 1 year, from 47.8 to 48.8 years. The proportion who were female rose from 34.0% to 36.2%, and in 2003 female GPs were younger than their male colleagues (44.4 years for females and 51.4 years for males).