Before exploring the reasons why you could find a career in the Australian health sector to be stable, stimulating, and fulfilling, it’s worth pausing to consider what the sector actually includes. The Australian Government’s Institute of Health and Welfare defines the nation’s healthcare system as including ‘all the activities whose primary purpose is to promote, restore, and/or maintain health’. In Australia, this encompasses ‘a multifaceted web of public providers, settings, participants, and supporting mechanisms’, from primary care professionals (such as general practitioners and pharmacists) to expert secondary care professionals (such as surgeons and specialists).
The breadth of the healthcare system has already made it the country’s largest employer (by sector)—and future demands will ensure that it becomes more important still. So, if you’re looking for a career that’s both meaningful and socially vital, here are five reasons why the health sector would be a good place to start.
The healthcare industry currently employs one in eight Australians, or about 1.5 million people, making it Australia’s largest employer1. What’s more, the healthcare sector is extremely well-educated, with about three quarters of its employees possessing a post-school qualification2. Unsurprisingly then, the Australian healthcare system is considered one of the best in the world—so why does it now face the prospect of failing to meet future demand? This is a complicated issue, but the explanations offered by industry experts and analysts tend to coalesce around three main points.
First, studies performed by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that the proportion of older Australians (defined as those aged 65 and over) is set to increase dramatically over the coming decades as a result of sustained low fertility and increasing life expectancy. In 1976, older Australians comprised 9% of the population. This figure had grown to 15% in 2016, and is forecast to reach 22% by 2056. Importantly, average health expenditure is consistently highest in senior populations3, who have higher rates of hospitalisation, primary care needs, and secondary care needs.
Second, Australia, like many other developed countries, has seen skyrocketing rates of diseases related to smoking, alcohol, sedentary lifestyles, poor diets, and high sun exposure. These include obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. According to Ian Frazer, the 2006 Australian of the Year, “one third of the costs of the health system are from smoking, alcohol, obesity and sun exposure”. Unfortunately, the increasing prevalence of these diseases is not confined to any specific demographic.
Third, new breakthroughs in medical treatments and technologies, from novel medications to advanced scanning techniques, have contributed to growing health expenditure, placing new demands on private patients and the public health system.
For example, hepatitis C, which affects 230,500 Australians and can lead to debilitating liver disease, was traditionally treated with drugs (such as peginterferon and ribavirin), that, though relatively affordable, caused severe side-effects and were only effective about 50% of the time. However, in 2016, the government added a new class of drugs—known as direct-acting antiviral (DAA) treatments—to the pharmaceutical benefits schemes. The DAA medications are effective 95% of the time, have fewer side-effects, work more quickly, and can be taken as a tablet (instead of an injection). The only downside is that the new drugs are also significantly more expensive—before they were added to the PBS, a single course of DAA treatment could cost up to $20,000.
For all of these reasons, the Australian Treasury projects that health expenditure will rise from 4% of gross domestic product (in 2016) to 7% of GDP in 2050. During the same period, the number of employees in the health sector is expected to rise at approximately 3% per annum.6 In short, one of the best reasons to consider a career in health is simply that there will be no shortage of job opportunities over the coming decades.
Salaries vary widely in the Australian health sector. For example, a graduate registered nurse earns an average salary of $56,000, while a graduate doctor will earn an average salary of $65,000. After ten years of employment, the average salary for doctors grows to $105,000, while nurses can earn up to $79,000. Indeed, analyses of lifetime earnings indicate that, over the course of their careers, health professionals are among the most highly paid workers in Australia.7
This pattern is expected to continue—despite annual wage growth hitting record lows in many Australian industries, salaries for healthcare workers have continued to increase by 2-3% per annum.8 Experts predict that this growth rate will increase around 2020, when the demand for certain health professionals (such as nurses) starts to outpace supply.
In addition to competitive salaries, health professionals are often able to access generous benefits packages. For example, public health employees are able to take advantage of salary packaging, which allows them to purchase approved items with pre-tax income.
The healthcare sector depends upon graduates who decide to specialise: that’s how interning doctors becoming neurosurgeons, and graduate nurses dedicate themselves to areas such paediatrics or aged care. To encourage such specialisation, the industry has built flexibility into the way it operates. So, wherever you start as a healthcare graduate, you’ll have a unique degree of influence over where you end up.
Do you prefer public sector employment or are you drawn to a career in private health? Would you prefer to work in a busy hospital, a boutique medical practice, a community health centre, or somewhere else? Are you more fulfilled by meeting the needs of isolated populations in regional areas, or are you stimulated by the fast-pace of healthcare provision in the city? As a healthcare graduate, you’ll be able to generate answers to all of these questions and then create a career that matches your unique values and interests.
Every day seems to bring new breakthroughs in healthcare, from innovative treatments to improved diagnostic tools. To ensure that patients always receive the best treatment possible, most healthcare careers require a commitment to continuing professional development. For example, to remain accredited, doctors and nurses must earn set numbers of points each year by attending conferences, completing educational courses, publishing papers, and performing other tasks designed to keep them well-informed and ready to tackle any emerging challenges.
A career in health also offers abundant opportunities to learn on the job. For example, no day is ever the same in a hospital. Whether you’re a nurse, a physical therapist, or pharmacist, you’ll have new patients each day, new cases to consider, and dramatic, sometimes life or death, decisions to make.
This is one of the first reasons people give when asked why they’ve chosen to work in the health sector, and it’s no surprise—in which other profession are you more likely to ease pain, bring new life into the world, help somebody to leave it in peace, alleviate mental suffering, or make breakthroughs that impact entire communities? As a healthcare professional, you’ll have the opportunity to dedicate yourself to overcoming various challenges both social and medical. In doing so, you can potentially make a life-altering impact on your community. For example, the average life-expectancy of Indigenous Australians remains about 17 years lower than for non-Indigenous Australians. Any successful efforts to address such an issue stand to benefit not one patient, but tens of thousands of individuals across the country.
To find graduate opportunities in the health sector, visit GradAustralia’s job search directory.