Despite a BNZ survey showing most healthcare operators are hunting for more staff, more than half of them are confident about their financial outlook and are plugging labour gaps with new technologies

Three quarters of private healthcare providers are challenged by staffing shortages right now, and while just a third of operators are currently recruiting, the number is set to increase over the next year.

That’s according to a new survey by BNZ, which collated answers from 164 healthcare operators between May and June this year.

The survey found while times are tough for the sector at the moment, especially when it comes to filling in staffing gaps, 61 percent feel positive about their financial outlook.

This relatively high level of optimism may reflect people working in the industry being a particularly “resilient bunch”, says BNZ head of health Thom McKenzie, as well as the fact the sector is harnessing new technology to give its workforce an additional layer of support.

Almost two thirds of survey respondents said they were using technology as much as possible, while 37 percent felt they could use more.

McKenzie says that latter statistic shows there is an opportunity for the sector to lift its performance further.

“In an app-driven world, there are even greater efficiencies to be found in the way we spend our healthcare budgets. If utilised well, these can help further lift our healthcare outcomes.”

Among the ways technology is contributing to health sector productivity  is through automation of processes which currently rely on a human to complete, McKenzie says.  Pharmacies using dispensing machines is one example.

Automation like this could give health providers the chance to focus on the parts of their job that are most important, and spend less time filling out paperwork, he says.

“Adoption of tech can help them get back to doctoring.”

But efficiency can also come coupled with novel approaches to treatment, like using virtual world and gaming to help patients with ADHD or depression.

McKenzie says the skills shortages are a problem that needs more than just fiddling with immigration levers to fix. Innovation will be key.

“While it’s important we get our immigration settings right to maximise our natural competitive advantages, the reality is we can’t simply recruit our way out of the problem. We need to be thinking about innovative solutions, providing new layers of workforce support, and looking at ways technology and innovation can help.”

BNZ head of health Thom McKenzie said the private healthcare sector are a resilient and hard-working bunch. Photo: Supplied

Precision Health Alliance is one company already applying technology to train healthcare professionals.

CEO Dr Cam McDonald says the AI-driven app Shae has been a “game changer”. Shae uses photo scan technology to assess the genetic expression of a patient and calculate a precise lifestyle guide covering all their health needs.

“Imagine being able to see 16 specialists and have ongoing input from those specialists for the price of a coffee a week,” McDonald said. “This is elite level, high performance healthcare, democratised.

“There’s a low price barrier to entry and it’s not generic health information,” McDonald says. “It’s unique to each person be they Māori, Pacific, Asian, European or from any other background.”

BNZ’s head of technology industries Tim Wixon says the health sector has lagged a bit when it comes to digitising for efficiency and growth.

“With the overall weight of the sector resting in the public domain, it is unsurprising health may be a last frontier when it comes to a digital reform.”

McKenzie says the health of the healthcare sector was important, not just for the wellbeing of the country, but also as a “financial engine”, representing nearly ten percent of GDP.

A global hunt for staff 

New Zealand isn’t alone in facing big skills shortages for the healthcare sector. The World Health Organisation estimates there will be a shortfall of some 10 million workers in the sector by the end of the decade.

“This isn’t a uniquely New Zealand issue, and the fact a quarter of our private operators aren’t struggling is perhaps good reason for optimism,” McKenzie said.

While the labour shortages have put the healthcare sector in a difficult place, there are a number of big trends that could catalyse change in the way healthcare businesses operate into the future.

One is the higher needs of our ageing population, another is a growing need for mental health services. Then there’s the ongoing impacts the pandemic may have on health, both directly and indirectly. And there is also a swing towards people being more proactive in seeking healthcare.

The ability for people to consult remotely with a health professional fits well with the trends, but at the same time there remain barriers to access.

Although almost two thirds of respondents in the BNZ survey reported high uptake, just under half were worried about affordability, and almost a third were worried about return on investment.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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