Workforce capacity to address obesity: a Western Australian cross-sectional study identifies the gap between health priority and human resources needed
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Background: The disease burden due to poor nutrition, physical inactivity and obesity is high and increasing. An adequately sized and skilled workforce is required to respond to this issue. This study describes the public health nutrition and physical activity (NAPA) practice priorities and explores health managers and practitioner’s beliefs regarding workforce capacity to deliver on these priorities. Methods: A workforce audit was conducted including a telephone survey of all managers and a postal survey of practitioners working in the area of NAPA promotion in Western Australia in 2004. Managers gave their perspective on workforce priorities, current competencies and future needs, with a 70 % response rate. Practitioners reported on public health workforce priorities, qualifications and needs, with a 56 % response rate. Results: The top practice priorities for managers were diabetes (35 %), alcohol and other drugs (33 %), and cardiovascular disease (27 %). Obesity (19 %), poor nutrition (15 %) and inadequate physical activity (10 %) were of lower priority. For nutrition, managers identified lack of staff (60.4 %), organisational and management factors (39.5 %) and insufficient financial resources (30.2 %) as the major barriers to adequate service delivery. For physical activity services, insufficient financial resources (41.7 %) and staffing (35.4 %) and a lack of specific physical activity service specifications (25.0 %) were the main barriers. Practitioners identified inadequate staffing as the main barrier to service delivery for nutrition (42.3 %) and physical activity (23.3 %). Ideally, managers said they required 152 % more specialist nutritionists in the workforce and 131 % specialists for physical activity services to meet health outcomes in addition to other generalist staff. Conclusion: Human and financial resources and organisational factors were the main barriers to meeting obesity, and public health nutrition and physical activity outcomes. Services were being delivered by generalists rather than specialists, which may reduce service effectiveness. Although conclusions from this research need to take into account the fact that the audit was conducted in 2004, the findings suggest that there was a need to equip health services with an adequately skilled workforce of sufficient capacity to deliver an effective public health response to the obesity epidemic, particularly addressing poor nutrition and physical inactivity.
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