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Optometrists asked to join national COVID-19 surge workforce

Optometrists are among 12 regulated health professions that authorities have recently approved to expand the nation’s COVID-19 response workforce, which includes administering vaccines.

On 22 September, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) the National Boards established a new pandemic response sub-register (the 2021 sub-register) for up to 12 months.

Nearly 29,000 practitioners are now eligible, with the sub register identifying practitioners whose clinical skills and training give them appropriate qualifications to provide clinical and non-clinical support for the COVID-19 health response.

It includes 12 regulated health professions who can work to the full scope of their registration.

On the 2021 sub-register are key professions identified by governments in their pandemic response planning. These include medical practitioners, nurses, midwives, pharmacists along with dental practitioners, diagnostic radiographers, occupational therapists, optometrists, physiotherapists, podiatrists and psychologists. Eligible Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practitioners are being added to the 2021 sub-register if they choose to opt in.

Darrell Baker.

The extra health practitioners on the 2021 sub-register join 26,000 practitioners who are on the 2020 pandemic response sub-register first established in April 2020. Practitioners on the 2020 sub-register have registration limited to practise in areas supporting the COVID-19 response, such as administering the COVID-19 vaccination or backfilling furloughed staff.

Practitioners on both sub-registers can opt out at any time and don’t need to explain why.

Optometry Australia (OA) reported that Ahpra confirmed it would commence contacting optometrists, along with other health practitioners included in the sub-registry, to notify them of this decision.

“[Aphra] further confirmed that there is no requirement for any optometrist to participate in the COVID-19 surge workforce but it potentially provided employment opportunities to optometrists who may be unemployed, or who have had their work hours significantly reduced, as a result of on-going lockdowns and restrictions,” OA stated.

“Optometrists who have let their registration lapse will also be contacted by Ahpra, and will need to opt out should they not wish to join the surge workforce.

“Ahpra verified that its decision today enables state governments to appoint health practitioners on the two sub-registers to be included as part of their surge workforce but, due to differing state legislation, the decision to do this rested with each jurisdiction’s government.”

OA national president Mr Darrell Baker said the announcement was a major development for the profession, recognising the clinical skills, experience and training of optometrists as primary healthcare workers and major contributors to community health.

“We are delighted as this recognition could help to unlock further scope of practice advancements that could otherwise, take years to come to fruition,” Baker said, according to OA.

He said OA was hopeful that other state and territory governments would follow the precedence set by the Victorian Government on 2 September, to include optometrists in their COVID-19 vaccination health response team.

“Optometry Australia will support our state divisions’ efforts in lobbying their governments in relation to today’s announcement,” Baker said.

Ahpra CEO Mr Martin Fletcher said the organisation and the National Boards were working with governments to help support Australia’s health system response to the pandemic.

“Health service needs are constantly changing across Australia. The 2021 sub-register is a tool to help health authorities meet current workforce needs and those that might arise in the next 12 months,” he said.

“Our focus has been on ensuring that practitioners available as a potential surge health workforce are properly qualified, competent and suitable to be on the sub-registers.”

While Ahpra has no role in helping practitioners on the 2021 sub-register find employment as that is the domain of health authorities and employers, individuals who are in a high-risk category for COVID-19 should only work in a safe practice environment.

Background to the 2020 and 2021 sub-registers:

  • In April 2020, Ahpra and National Boards established a temporary pandemic response sub-register for up to 12 months to help fast track the return to the workforce of experienced and qualified health practitioners.
  • In early April 2021, following a request of Health Ministers, National Boards agreed that medical practitioners, nurses, midwives and pharmacists be extended to stay on the sub-register for up to 12 months (to 5 April 2022). This extension was granted to help with the COVID-19 vaccination program only. This is also the case for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practitioners.
  • On 8 September 2021, the registration of practitioners on the 2020 sub-register was broadened so they can now practise in any area that supports the COVID-19 response. This includes clinical and non-clinical roles directly related to the COVID-19 response. The change to practitioners’ registration followed a request from states and territories to provide an additional surge health workforce in response to significant changes in need due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • On 22 September 2021, the 2021 sub-register was established adding nearly 29,000 health practitioners to the pool of temporarily registered practitioners available to help in the fight against COVID-19 if they choose to do so.

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