The human resources for health crisis

A trainee nurse is checking patients in hospital
Mohammad Rakibul Hasan, 2007
A trainee nurse checks patients in hospital

The serious shortage of health workers across the world has been identified as one of the most critical constraints to the achievement of health and development goals. The crisis is impairing provision of essential, life-saving interventions such as childhood immunization, safe pregnancy and delivery services for mothers and access to prevention and treatment for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. Health workers are also critical to our preparedness for and response to the global security threats posed by emerging and epidemic-prone diseases such as SARS and avian flu and haemorrhagic fevers as well as the consequences of climate change. Without urgent action, the shortage will worsen, health systems will be weakened even further and health goals will not be achieved.

In it's 2006 World Health Report, the World Health Organization estimated that over 4 million more health workers are needed to bridge the gap - with 1.5 million needed for Africa alone. Across the world, 57 countries have been identified as having 'critical shortages' - 36 of these are in Africa.

The workforce crisis is made worse by imbalances within countries. There is a general lack of adequate staffing in rural areas compared to cities. To add further pressures, priority disease programs are competing for scarce staff, to the detriment of integrated health system development. In developed countries, a rise in chronic health problems among ageing populations and ageing of their own workforces has led to an ever-growing demand for health workers. The pull of higher salaries in industrialized countries and the push of poor working conditions at home drive thousands of health workers to jobs abroad each year. Yet developing countries face an escalating double burden of both infectious and non communicable diseases and are in need of massive scale up of training and retention interventions.

Unfavorable working conditions, widespread shortages and large scale migration of health workers are the challenges we face today. With new killer diseases and issues like climate change threatening global security, aging populations and changing work patterns, there is an ever-growing demand for health workers worldwide. How can we give people the care they need if we don’t have enough health workers?