Report Warns of Worsening Global Healthcare Worker Shortage

Megan Brooks

November 12, 2013

The world needs to train more healthcare workers — and fast — according to a new report from the World Health Organization (WHO). The report, released November 11, estimates that the world will be short 12.9 million healthcare workers by 2035. Today, that figure stands at 7.2 million.

The shortage of healthcare workers, if not addressed now, will have serious implications for the health of billions of people across all regions of the world, the WHO says.

"The foundations for a strong and effective health workforce for the future are being corroded in front of our very eyes by failing to match today's supply of professionals with the demands of tomorrow's populations," Marie-Paule Kieny, PhD, WHO assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, said in a news release.

"To prevent this happening, we must rethink and improve how we teach, train, deploy, and pay health workers so that their impact can widen," Dr. Kieny said.

The report A Universal Truth: No Health Without a Workforce , was released at the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health, which is currently underway in Recife, Brazil. It is the largest event ever held on human resources for health, with more than 1300 participants from 85 countries, including 40 ministers of health, a conference statement notes.

One cause of the healthcare worker shortage, according to the report, is an aging health workforce, with staff retiring or leaving the profession, coupled with not enough young people entering the profession or being adequately trained.

The report notes that in developed countries, 40% of nurses will leave health employment in the next decade. "With demanding work and relatively low pay, the reality is that many young health workers receive too few incentives to stay in the profession," the WHO release says.

The report also points out that 90% of all maternal deaths and 80% of all stillbirths occur in 58 countries, largely because those countries lack trained midwives.

The healthcare system is also facing increasing demands from a growing world population with chronic ailments such as cancer, heart disease, and stroke.

Internal and international migration of health workers is also exacerbating regional imbalances, the report says.

The report notes that there are 83 countries below the basic threshold of having 23 skilled health professionals per 10,000 people, although more countries are making strides in reaching this basic threshold.

However, the current rate of training of new health professionals is falling well below current and projected demand, which will make it hard in the coming years for people to get the essential services, the report warns.

The report predicts that the biggest shortages in health providers will be in parts of Asia but says the problem will be especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where just 168 medical schools exist. Of the 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 11 have no medical schools and 24 have only a single such school, the report notes.

The report encourages all countries to address the healthcare worker shortage and provides a detailed list of recommendations to strengthen human resources for health in the setting of universal health coverage.

Among the items on the list are recommendations for better political and technical leadership, collection of reliable data, maximizing the role of midlevel and community healthcare workers, retention of health workers in countries where the deficits are most acute, and providing mechanisms for the voice, rights, and responsibilities of health workers while working toward universal health coverage.

"One of the challenges for achieving universal health coverage is ensuring that everyone — especially people in vulnerable communities and remote areas — has access to well-trained, culturally-sensitive, and competent health staff," Carissa Etienne, MD, WHO regional director for the Americas, said in the release.

"The best strategy for achieving this is by strengthening multidisciplinary teams at the primary health care level. Training of health professionals must be aligned with the health needs of the country," Dr. Etienne said.

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