Bulletin of the World Health Organization

The health worker shortage in Africa: are enough physicians and nurses being trained?

Yohannes Kinfu, Mario R Dal Poz, Hugo Mercer & David B Evans


To estimate systematically the inflow and outflow of health workers in Africa and examine whether current levels of pre-service training in the region suffice to address this serious problem, taking into account population increases and attrition of health workers due to premature death, retirement, resignation and dismissal.


Data on the current numbers and types of health workers and outputs from training programmes are from the 2005 WHO health workforce and training institutions’ surveys. Supplementary information on population estimates and mortality is from the United Nations Population Division and WHO databases, respectively, and information on worker attrition was obtained from the published literature. Because of shortages of data in some settings, the study was restricted to 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.


Our results suggest that the health workforce shortage in Africa is even more critical than previously estimated. In 10 of the 12 countries studied, current pre-service training is insufficient to maintain the existing density of health workers once all causes of attrition are taken into account. Even if attrition were limited to involuntary factors such as premature mortality, with current workforce training patterns it would take 36 years for physicians and 29 years for nurses and midwives to reach WHO’s recent target of 2.28 professionals per 1000 population for the countries taken as a whole – and some countries would never reach it.


Pre-service training needs to be expanded as well as combined with other measures to increase health worker inflow and reduce the rate of outflow.