Investing in health workforces: the path towards the SDGs starts here

By Jim Campbell, Director, Health Workforce Department (WHO), Executive Director, Global Health Workforce Alliance.

This week marks a transition from one era of global health and development to the next. Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be agreed by 193 Heads of State and Government at the UN General Assembly in New York this week. As with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), health is rightly recognized as a fundamental human right and driver of development

Closing the gaps

Since 1990 we have seen unprecedented progress in improving global health outcomes, thanks in part to the priority given to health in the MDGs (3 out of 8 MDGs are focused on health). A 47% reduction in maternal mortality, and a 49% reduction in child mortality are just two of the extraordinary achievements of the past generation.

As we move now into the Post-2015 era, we know that to sustain and build upon on these past successes we must do more to address inequities in access to quality health care. Progress in achieving the MDGs has been uneven with the poorest and most marginalized people still being denied the most basic heath services. That is why SDG 3 – as with all the goals – moves away from targets that can be met whilst leaving the poorest behind, and instead calls on governments and other partners to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all.

Renewed focus on health systems

The quantity, skills and geographic distribution of the health workforce have long been recognized as factors that have held back even greater, and more equitable progress on the health-related MDGs. A strong and motivated health workforce is key to a resilient, integrated and people-centred health system. Without a fit for purpose workforce the world put’s itself at risk of not only failing to meet the ambitious targets of the SDGs, but of even reversing progress in the face of population growth and unexpected challenges such as the Ebola outbreak.

The need for greater priority to be given to health systems and human resources for health (HRH) is recognized in the new SDG targets. For example there are new targets to ‘achieve universal health coverage’ and to ‘substantially increase health financing and the recruitment, development, training and retention of the health workforce in developing countries’.

A number of new strategies are also being launched in New York this week that will help translate the SDG goals into action. Two in particular have a focus on human resources for health -

Securing a Healthy Future: Resilient Health Systems to Fight Epidemics and Ensure Healthy Lives

“Roadmap: Healthy Systems - Healthy Lives”, a global initiative to strengthen health systems will be launched at a high-level side event on September 26, hosted by the Governments of Germany, Ghana and Norway. The Roadmap will be developed through a multi-stakeholder process that intends to facilitate a comprehensive understanding of health systems strengthening and agree on principles and approaches that will help countries build strong and resilient health systems. This process will be facilitated by Germany and the WHO, with a target date of completion for mid-2016.

A bold agenda for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health

A new Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health which will be launched on September 26, calls for an even more ambitious agenda of ending all preventable deaths within a generation by expanding equitable coverage of a broader range of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health services.

As a recent paper, Improving the resilience and workforce of health systems for women’s, children’s, and adolescents’ health, published in the British Medical Journal highlighted, the updated Every Woman, Every Child Strategy must place health systems – and health workforces – at its heart, as their performance will decide success or failure for reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health in the next fifteen years. Clear guidance should be developed for countries so that they can build integrated and resilient healthcare delivery systems that meet the needs and expectations of all women and children.

The Global Strategy on HRH: building health workforces fit to deliver the SDGs

An extensive, global consultation on HRH has just been completed and the results are currently being translated into an updated draft of WHO’s Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030. This strategy will provide essential guidance for all partners looking to improve health outcomes related to the SDGs.

The Strategy highlights the increasing evidence that HRH offers a triple return on investment:

  • It drives improvement in population health outcomes;
  • It triggers broader socio-economic development with positive spill-over effects on the attainment of the SDGs, including education, gender equality and on the creation of decent employment opportunities and sustainable economic growth;
  • It serves as a first line of defense for individual countries to meet the International Health Regulations (2005) and promote global health security.

This week, we all have an opportunity to set off on the right path towards the achievement of the SDGs in 2030. Ensuring that we create the conditions for employment in the health and social sectors, addressing global deficits and improving access to care is surely the smartest place to start the journey.