Review of small rural health services in Victoria: how does the nursing-medical division of labour affect access to emergency care?


  • Elise Sullivan,

  • Karen Francis PhD,

  • Desley Hegney PhD

Elise Sullivan
PhD scholar
School of Nursing
University of Queensland
90 Muirs Lane
Telephone: 0408 468 496


Aims.  This paper is based on a review of the Australian and International literature relating to the nursing-medical division of labour. It also explores how the division of labour affects patient access to emergency care in small rural health services in Victoria, Australia.

Background.  The paper describes the future Australian health workforce and the implications for rural Victoria. The concept of division of labour and how it relates to nursing and medicine is critically reviewed. Two forms of division of labour emerge – traditional and negotiated division of labour. Key themes are drawn from the literature that describes the impact of a traditional form of division of labour in a rural context.

Methods.  This paper is based on a review of the Australian and international literature, including grey literature, on the subject of rural emergency services, professional boundaries and roles, division of labour, professional relationships and power and the Australian health workforce.

Results.  In Australia, the contracting workforce means that traditional divisions of labour between health professionals cannot be sustained without reducing access to emergency care in rural Victoria. A traditional division of labour results in rural health services that are vulnerable to slight shifts in the medical workforce, unsafe services and recruitment and retention problems. A negotiated form of division of labour provides a practical alternative.

Conclusion.  A division of labour that is negotiated between doctors and nurses and supported by a legal and clinical governance framework, is needed to support rural emergency services. The published evidence suggests that this situation currently does not exist in Victoria. Strategies are offered for creating and supporting a negotiated division of labour.

Relevance to clinical practice.  This paper offers some strategies for establishing a negotiated division of labour between doctors and nurses in rural emergency care.