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Cruise ship passengers disembark from the Ruby Princess at Circular Quay in Sydney in March. Photo: AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Healthcare managers needed to lead in complex times

Healthcare leadership has come under the spotlight in recent months, for reasons both good and bad. The coronavirus pandemic has demanded the best from our healthcare leaders, as much as from our politicians, and their decisions have both saved, and sometimes cost, lives.

While the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the extraordinary success of Australia’s healthcare system overall, tragic failures too have emerged. The Ruby Princess fiasco and the disease clusters at two aged care homes have shown the consequences of flawed decision-making and safety protocols. Frontline staff can do little to save lives if mistakes are made at the top.

While the COVID-19 crisis will eventually pass, the need for skilled healthcare managers will not. Over the long term, demand for new experts in the healthcare industry is being driven by the growing number of Australians with chronic and complex conditions, rising patient expectations and the increasing complexity of the system. This everyday pressure is guaranteed to be punctuated by other public health emergencies, with the question being not if they will happen, but when.

The managers of the future will need strong technical competence, communication and people skills, and the ability to multitask under these demands. They will need the skills to operate in Australia’s fragmented healthcare system, with its governance shared between state and federal departments and care delivered by both the public and private sectors. It comprises a variety of professional groups and organisations, each with its own culture, goals and priorities.

To operate successfully and efficiently in this complex system, healthcare managers need to be able to capitalise on the strengths and skills of their organisation’s multidisciplinary staff. They need to achieve efficient and effective delivery of healthcare, while also planning for the sustainability of their own institutions, inspiring staff and ensuring their safety and wellbeing.

Healthcare leaders must innovate and improve systems, encourage collaboration between providers, and promote the sharing of expertise and resources. They may need to mediate between overlapping organisations and welcome input from competing interest groups, yet be prepared to make hard decisions and bring all parties along with them in the service of their vision.

One of the greatest opportunities – and the biggest challenges – lies in the potential of data to inform services and drive a culture of quality and safety. Already, the analysis of health data in some cases has caused public outrage and prompted calls for greater accountability. Glaring examples are the high error rates in hospitals – estimated at one in every 10 admissions – and revelations of sub-standard care in certain aged care facilities.

Postgraduate study offers solutions

The most convincing answer to these complex issues is postgraduate study, which can accelerate the acquisition of high-level skills and equip leaders to navigate Australia’s complex healthcare system. A postgraduate degree offers proof that the holder not only has strong clinical skills but can also facilitate great outcomes through the work of others. This warranty of expertise is highly attractive to potential employers.

The health professionals in highest demand, now and in the future, will be those who have invested in training that enhances their management skills. Education can empower these professionals to take on the responsibilities that come with management: leading a multidisciplinary team, managing risk, creating a safe work environment and contributing to the effectiveness of the healthcare system as a whole.

Strong job prospects

According to the Federal Government’s Job Outlook report, future job prospects for health and welfare services managers is “very strong”. The number of people working in these roles is expected to grow sharply over the next five years to 23,900 by 2023 from 19,600 in 2018. There are likely to be around 15,000 job openings over five years – or about 3,000 jobs a year. As a result, there are good opportunities for all healthcare professionals to advance their careers by moving into these emerging leadership positions.

The financial rewards can be significant, and professionals with postgraduate qualifications can rapidly earn back the investment in their professional development. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reveals health and welfare services managers were receiving an average weekly income of $2,279 as at May 2018. These salaries easily outstripped the average Australian weekly income across all occupations of $1,525[1].

Joanne Travaglia is Professor of Health Services Management at UTS. She has internationally recognised expertise in health services research, management and leadership and has received multiple evaluation and research grants at a federal and state level.

[1] ABS Employee Earnings and Hours, Australia, May 2018

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