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Allied Health Professions are a distinct group of health professionals who apply their expertise to diagnose, treat and rehabilitate people of all ages and all specialties. Together with a range of technical and support staff they may deliver direct patient care, rehabilitation, treatment, diagnostics and health improvement interventions to restore and maintain optimal physical, sensory, psychological, cognitive and social functions.
This inclusive grouping, which can account for up to 60% of all health professionals in some countries, provides professional leadership, governance, supervision and professional development that will assure appropriate credentialing and quality of patient care. Allied Health makes a significant contribution to health system strengthening, including primary care, and the communities with whom they work. [ICHPO Consensus Statement: June 2012]
Definitions of allied health professions vary across countries and contexts, but generally indicate that they are health professions distinct from medicine, pharmacy and nursing. Some definitions only include health care providers that require registration by law to practice, but usually all allied health professions that require a post-secondary degree or higher qualification are included.
Depending on the country and local health care system, a limited subset of the following professions (professional areas) may be represented, and may be regulated:
All professional areas ascribed before belong to the ever-growing group of allied health professionals and their subspecialties. The precise titles, roles, and requisites of the allied health professions may vary considerably from country to country. For example, the National Council for Homeopathy of Pakistan and the Central Council of Homeopathy of India recognize as allied health professionals those who qualify with a four-year university degree in the discipline, whereas in other countries the practice of homeopathy is not subject to professional regulation.
In Australia, Allied Health typically includes all health professions other than medicine and nursing and dentistry that require a tertiary degree to practice, and who form part of the public health system. Queensland Health employs more than 5000 allied health professionals across the following disciplines:
However, it is more and more recognized that other professionals have a role to play in regard to healthcare. These include professionals such as youth workers, social workers, sexual health workers and school nurses. Not only do these practitioners have a key role to play due to their interaction with a wide range of the population but they may also have that opportunistic 'teachable' moment that allows them to impart health advice in a non-threatening manner.
In South Africa, different professions are regulated by different boards. The Health Professions Council of South Africa regulates 26 different professional titles in medicine and dentistry plus the following areas:
Some allied health professions are more specialized, and so must adhere to national training and education standards and their professional scope of practice. Often they must prove their skills through degrees, diplomas, certified credentials, and continuing education. Other allied health professions require no special training or credentials and are trained for their work by their employer through on-the-job training (which would then exclude them from consideration as an Allied Health Profession in a country like Australia). Many allied health jobs are considered career ladder jobs because of the opportunities for advancement within specific fields.
Allied health professions can include the use of many skills. Depending on the profession, these may include basic life support; medical terminology, acronyms and spelling; basics of medical law and ethics; understanding of human relations; interpersonal communication skills; counseling skills; computer literacy; ability to document healthcare information; interviewing skills; and proficiency in word processing; database management and electronic dictation.
The explosion of scientific knowledge that followed World War II brought increasingly sophisticated and complex medical diagnostic and treatment procedures. Increasing public demand for medical services combined with higher health care costs provoked a trend toward expansion of service delivery from treating patients in hospitals to widespread provision of care in physician's private and group practices, ambulatory medical and emergency clinics, and mobile clinics and community-based care. In the developing world, international development assistance led to numerous initiatives for strengthening health workforce capacity to deliver essential health care services. What followed has been an increase in the need for skilled health care delivery personnel worldwide.
Changes in the health industry and emphasis on cost-efficient solutions to health care delivery will continue to encourage expansion of the allied health workforce. The World Health Organization estimates there is currently a worldwide shortage of about 2 million allied health professionals (considering all health workers aside from medical and nursing personnel) needed in order to meet global health goals.
In recognition of the growth of the number and diversity of allied health professionals in recent years, the newly adopted 2008 version of the International Standard Classification of Occupations has increased the number of groups dedicated to allied health professions. Depending on the presumed skill level, they may either be identified as “health professionals” or “health associate professionals”. For example, new categories have been created for delineating “paramedical practitioners” — grouping professions such as clinical officers, clinical associates, physician assistants, Feldshers, and assistant medical officers — as well as for community health workers; dietitians and nutritionists; audiologists and speech therapists; and others.
Projections in the United States and many other countries have shown an expected long-term shortage of qualified workers to fill many allied health positions. This is primarily due to expansion of the health industry due to demographic changes (a growing and aging population), large numbers of health workers nearing retirement, the industry’s need to be cost efficient, and a lack of sufficient investment in training programs to keep pace with these trends.
Workforce and health care experts anticipate that health services will increasingly be delivered via ambulatory and nursing care settings rather than in hospitals. According to the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), the health care industry consists of three main sub-sectors, divided by the types of services provided at each facility:
In the US, a larger proportion of the allied health care workforce is already employed in ambulatory settings. In California, nearly half (49.4 percent) of the allied health workforce is employed in ambulatory health care settings, compared with 28.7 percent and 21.9 percent employed in hospital and nursing care, respectively.
Advancements in medical technology also allow for more services that formerly required expensive hospital stays to be delivered via ambulatory care. For example, in California, research has predicted the total consumption of hospital days per person will decline from 4 days in 2010 to 3.2 days in 2020 to 2.5 days in 2030. In contrast, the number of ambulatory visits per person will increase from 3.2 visits per person in 2010 to 3.6 visits per person in 2020 to 4.2 visits in 2030.
In developing countries, many national human resources for health strategic plans and international development initiatives are focusing on scaling up training of allied health professions, such as HIV/AIDS counsellors, clinical officers and community health workers, in providing essential preventive and treatment services in ambulatory and community-based care settings.
With this growing demand for ambulatory health care, researchers expect to witness a heavier demand for professions that are employed within the ambulatory sector and other non-hospital settings — in other words, allied health.