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Migrants propping up the health system

31 July 20170 comments

Migrants are healthier than the average Aussie and they also make up a significant proportion of the healthcare workforce, according to data from the latest census.

Developed economies, including Australia, have increasingly been using international migration to compensate for economically damaging demographic trends and skill shortages.

Australia has one of the highest proportion of overseas-born people in the world: an estimated 26 per cent of the total resident population was born overseas; and this is expected to increase over the next decade.

So the health of immigrants and their use of health services are having increasing impacts on demands on the health system, its responsiveness, and the national health profile.

Census data shows that one of the most significant demographic trends in Australia today is the ageing of the population. One in six Australians is now over 65, compared to one in seven in 2011 and only one in 25 in 1911.

Associate Professor Santosh Jatrana, from Swinburne University’s Centre for Social Impact says an increase in life expectancy and decline in the death rate have created a paradoxical situation in which these older people have increased the country’s rates of illness and disability.

“This has led to a rise in health-care costs and an increase in use of health services, as well as hospitalisation,” Prof Jatrana says.

“While an ageing population adds to the burden on the health system, an intake of migrants who are generally young and healthier than the average Australian, due to their selectivity, might help balance this out,” she says.

So, increasing migration is of benefit to Australia’s health.

The research shows that migrants tend to be healthier than the Australian-born population – partly because they are younger and also because their health is screened as part of the migration process.

But this health advantage narrows significantly over time, leading to their health becoming similar to that of Australians.

However, migrants make up a substantial part of the health workforce in Australia.

Prof Jatrana says the international movement of health professionals is a major component of migration and Australia has been dependent on everseas medical graduates for some time.

She points an estimate by the Department of health and Aging which says international medical graduates comprise about 39 per cent of the medical workforce in Australia and 46 per cent of general practitioners in rural and remote locations.

“The dependence on international doctors will likely be maintained in future for a variety of reasons, such as to redress medical workforce maldistribution,” Prof Jatrana said.

“Given Australia’s ageing patient and practitioner base and some key areas of the health workforce already in very short supply, this contribution of migrants is significant for Australia’s health profile,” she said.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist