Speech by Mr Micheál Martin T.D. Minister for Health and Children at the launch of the Report from Peter Bacon and Associates – current and future supply and demand conditions in the labour market for certain professional therapists

I am very pleased to welcome you to the launch of this important report prepared by Dr Peter Bacon and Associates into current and prospective future trends in the supply and demand of qualified personnel for the three key therapy professions:

  • speech and language therapy;
  • occupational therapy; and
  • physiotherapy.

At the outset I would like to thank Dr Bacon for producing what will be regarded as a pathbreaking report in terms of workforce planning for the health services and also for coming here this afternoon to explain the approach adopted in the report, its main findings and recommendations.

I would also wish to thank the steering group, which oversaw the preparation of the report namely:

  • John Hayden of the Higher Education Authority
  • Kevin Little of the North Western Health Board and
  • Adrienne Harrington (formerly) of my Department.

And to express my deep appreciation to all who assisted the consultants in their work including in particular the representative organisations for the professions concerned.

This study was commissioned by my Department in response to my concern regarding current severe labour shortages affecting the therapy professions nationwide and my strong belief in the importance of systematic workforce planning within the Health Service for the future.

The study being launched today is a rigorous and comprehensive quantitative assessment of the demand-supply balance for skilled personnel in the therapy healthcare sector.

It concludes, as no doubt Peter Bacon will elaborate on in his presentation, that a major expansion is essential in the numbers of therapy professionals over the period under review in order to pre-empt the emergence of a persistent and growing deficit in service provision.

Moreover, the study finds that this situation is not a consequence of today’s tight labour market but rather the result of a structural shortfall in the number of training places in the professions.

As detailed in the report, in order to successfully accommodate the projected future service demands over the next decade and a half a major upgrading in the numbers of training places available is essential for occupational therapy and speech and language therapy and also for physiotherapy.

I will be working closely with my colleague the Minister for Education and Science to ensure the rapid provision of the additional places as an urgent priority. To this end an Inter-Agency Working Group has been established comprising representatives of my Department, the Department of Education and Science and the Higher Education Authority.

The HEA is in the process of preparing a “call for proposals” for 3rd level educational institutions to respond to the training needs identified in the study. There is obviously strong interest within the education system to responding quickly to meet identified training needs in these professions. I am very confident that this process will swiftly yield the significant increase in the number of training places recommended.

As highlighted in the report, a broader geographical distribution of training provision would also be desirable in order to ensure a more balanced regional distribution to training, and to draw upon a broader range of clinical placement opportunities, subject naturally to the overriding consideration that new training places are delivered as quickly as possible.

Moreover, I would be anxious to encourage, in line with the recommendations of the study, flexible and imaginative approaches to increased training provision in order to facilitate the availability of fully qualified graduates at the earliest date feasible.

Given the integral role of extensive practical clinical experience to the training of qualified therapists, the public sector must respond energetically to the provision of additional training places by ensuring that sufficient clinical placements are available within the health sector.

I know that there is a strong commitment among the Directors of Human Resources in the Health Boards to the development of a more effective clinical placement system. In this regard a national network of Clinical Placement Co-ordinators is being established with responsibility for the provision and co-ordination of all placements. It is envisaged that this new grade would work closely and co-operatively with the training providers acting as an essential support and resource for students, practitioners and colleges alike.

It is critical that the career structure, management, workload and working practices for therapy professionals dovetail with the workforce planning needs. In this respect the restructuring of the therapist professions, which has been achieved through the implementation of the Expert Group Report on Various Health Professionals, published April 2000 will play a crucial role.

The creation of a proper career structure will help boost recruitment and retention of skilled staff. The upgrading of approximately half of all basic grade therapists to senior level posts and the creation of a new grade of Clinical Specialist will help maintain within the health service the knowledge and expertise which is pivotal to the successful student training.

The creation of a Policy Unit for therapists within the Department of Health and Children as recommended by the Expert Group Report will act as an important impetus to achieving progress in relation to many of the recommendations included in the report ensuring that best use is made of the skills, knowledge and expertise of fully trained therapists within the health service.

There is a strong recognition running through the report that strategic, long-term workforce planning must become a core activity of the human resource function of the health services. This will necessitate a further strengthening and deepening of relationships with educational providers. Moreover, in such an environment human resource policies within the health service must be firmly orientated to ensuring that the training and continuing professional development needs of therapists are properly supported. This can undoubtedly make a significant contribution to the recruitment and retention of scarce therapist resources within the Irish Health Service.

In responding swiftly and effectively to the immediate need to fill outstanding vacancies in the health service the study emphasises the role of overseas recruitment initiatives which will be essential in order to bridge existing services´ deficit in advance of the production of additional new graduates in these disciplines. In this context, the Health Boards working with the assistance of the professional organisations where appropriate will be undertaking a concerted overseas recruitment campaign in the Autumn.

Increasing the flow of therapists from abroad will require action to minimise the length of time taken to validate foreign qualifications. I am of course very appreciative of the time and effort devoted by professional organisations to this work on a voluntary basis, which has grown enormously over recent years. However, there is a compelling need to streamline validations procedures as much as possible, consistent with the overarching need to ensure that all therapists working in the health sector are appropriately trained and qualified.

I am therefore requesting the therapy professions to examine with my Department the scope for temporary validation of qualifications in order to facilitate employers in recruiting very scarce therapist personnel to meet the urgent needs of the Health Service at this time. I would also welcome the opportunity to assist the respective representative organisations in expediting the validation process for example through the provision of administrative assistance by my Department

I believe that the publication of this report represents another important milestone in the development of the role of the therapy professions within the Health Service. The scale of the expansion identified in the report in the infrastructure for education and training of therapist grades will present challenges for all involved: training providers, employers and, of course, the professions themselves. This report provides an essential long-term planning framework for addressing these issues. Implementation of the recommendations of this study will help maximise the valuable contribution that the three therapy professions can make to health status and quality of life of the population.

In conclusion, I believe that the transformation in the supply of qualified therapists in these professions recommended in this report by Peter Bacon will provide the quality of healthcare expected and deserved by all users of the Health Service, consistent with the needs of society generally, a patient-centred Health Service and the objectives of an efficient and cost-effective provision of public services – all of which will comprise key themes of the forthcoming Health Strategy.

I would now like to ask Peter Bacon to make his presentation on the methodology adopted, conclusions and recommendations of the report.