Allied health assistants (AHAs) are not a new innovation in the health care landscape, and in fact there is evidence that AHAs have been employed for nearly as long as allied health professions have been in existence (more detail on the history of AHAs is available in this book). However, despite the enormous opportunities for AHAs to contribute to allied health practice, there are limited descriptions of the variety of models of care in which AHAs are employed.
In Australia, AHAs have really only been formally recognised as an addition to the allied health care team for the past decade or so. In the UK, the growth of allied health assistants started in around the 1970s in some professions, but has been increasingly formalised since the introduction of the NHS Plan (2000), which introduced strategies to rapidly grow the health workforce.
The increasing demands on the allied health workforce due to an ageing population, and growth in the disability sector due to the NDIS in Australia, means that AHAs are playing an increasingly important role in the support, development and augmentation of the allied health workforce to better meet client needs.
Most Australian state governments have completed comprehensive analyses of their respective AHA workforces, and have some understanding of, and structures to support the growth of AHAs in state-run health services. However, there is almost no data available on the employment of AHAs in the non-government sector. A quick review of job advertisements on seek.com.au (downloaded 1/5/23) shows over 2000 advertisements for AHAs in Australia, and approximately half of these are in the private or not-for-profit sectors.
Allied health assistants work under the delegation of an allied health professional. The peak body for AHAs in Australia, the Allied Health Assistant National Association (AHANA) defines an allied health assistant as follows:
An Allied Health Assistant is a healthcare worker who has demonstrated competencies to provide person-centred, evidence-informed therapy and support to individuals and groups, to help protect, restore and maintain optimal function, and promote independence and well-being.
An Allied Health Assistant works:
- within a defined scope of practice and in a variety of settings, where they actively foster a safe and inclusive environment; and
- under the delegation and supervision of an Allied Health Professional.
The level of supervision may be direct, indirect or remote and is dependent on the Allied Health Assistant’s demonstrated competencies, capabilities and experience.
However, ambiguity around the terms ‘delegation’ and ‘supervision’ have resulted in a wide range of interpretations of the AHA role, and consequently, some confusion around the appropriate way to work with AHAs. In fact, the greatest barrier to the effective employment of AHAs is the inefficient delegation by AHPs – partly due to a lack of awareness of the breadth of roles that AHAs can undertake.
The purpose of this article is to highlight some innovative models of care that can employ AHAs to enhance patient care and improve the productivity of allied health service. There are also several resources that provide more information. For example, the New South Wales Allied Health Assistant Horizon Scanning and Scenario Generation Report provides several examples of the innovative models of care employing AHAs, supported by surveys, workshops and a recent literature review.
While not exhaustive, the list below highlights some innovative models of care that employ AHAs in an allied health context:
AHAs can assist in facilitating telehealth sessions by setting up the necessary technology, helping patients navigate the virtual platform, and providing support during the session as needed. This expands the reach of the practice, making services accessible to remote or rural patients. For example the use of AHAs to support telerehabilitation assessment for dysphagia.
Group therapy sessions
AHAs can help organise and facilitate group therapy sessions for patients with similar conditions, allowing for more efficient use of resources and providing patients with the opportunity to learn from each other’s experiences and build social support networks.
Health promotion and community outreach
AHAs can participate in health promotion activities, such as organizing workshops, seminars, and support groups, as well as attending community events to raise awareness about the importance of allied health services and promote the practice.
Digital health records and data analytics
AHAs can be trained in maintaining electronic health records and using data analytics software to track patient progress, identify trends, and support quality improvement initiatives in the practice. For example, AHAs undertaking dysphagia file reviews.
Remote patient monitoring
AHAs can be involved in remote patient monitoring programs, where they can help patients set up monitoring devices, troubleshoot technical issues, and assist in the collection and interpretation of data to support clinical decision-making.
Assistive technology and adaptive equipment
AHAs can be trained to assess patients’ needs for assistive technology or adaptive equipment, as well as provide guidance and training on the proper use, maintenance, and troubleshooting of these devices. This is a rapidly emerging field. There are some interesting concepts in this article. See also our article on the impact of AI on allied health services, which identifies numerous examples of contemporary technological innovations in allied health, many of which could be supported by AHAs.
Multidisciplinary care teams
AHAs can be integrated into multidisciplinary care teams, working alongside other healthcare professionals to provide comprehensive, coordinated care for patients with complex needs. They can also help to coordinate multidisciplinary teams and support patient communication with different members of the team.
Mobile health clinics
AHAs can support mobile health clinics, which bring allied health services directly to patients in remote or underserved areas, by assisting with equipment setup, patient assessments, and therapy sessions.
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) in therapy
AHAs can support the use of VR and AR technologies in therapy, helping patients navigate these platforms and providing assistance during sessions. While not specific to AHAs, this article on the use of VR to measure shoulder range of motion points to potential applications of AHAs in this area.
AHAs can serve as patient navigators, helping patients understand and navigate the healthcare system, coordinate appointments, and access the necessary resources and support throughout their care journey.
Administering specific clinical protocols
AHAs can be employed to apply screening protocols using existing screening tools and gathering data to inform the subsequent clinical decision making by an AHP. They may also deliver standardised programs – repeatable programs that are prescribed by an AHP, such as falls prevention clinics and communication groups; removing casts and stitches in fracture clinic; implementing hydrotherapy sessions prescribed by AHP; cutting toenails to help low risk patients avoid longer wait
times for a podiatrist.
AHAs can deliver education to their peers, through mentoring, coaching and/or training other AHAs. AHAs are also involved in the delivery of patient education, for example, supporting clients in basic footcare or how to use pressure care cushions.
Managing patient bookings, contacting patients and booking follow-up appointments. Providing pre-treatment support to patients on a waiting list by providing access to information and resources.
The rapidly changing healthcare, technology and innovation landscape means that there are increasing opportunities to employ AHAs in new ways that can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of allied health service delivery. It is likely that applications here are only the tip of the iceberg, and as AHAs are employed more fully, the opportunities will increase. Unfortunately, AHA innovation can be difficult to capture and disseminate because of the enormous variation in allied health work. We would value hearing your examples of innovation in the employment of AHAs by leaving a comment below.
If you are interested in finding out more about AHAs, or to register as an AHA please visit the Allied Health Assistant National Association website.