Health workforce investments have been cut in some countries despite emerging evidence that the need for well-trained health workers will only increase and that health workers contribute to economic growth.
Health workers were the first responders in last November’s terrorist attacks in Paris, they risked and lost their own lives in the fight against Ebola, and they are increasingly targeted in conflicts–more than half of Syria’s health workers have fled or been killed. The value of health workers in protecting, promoting and sustaining human health is obvious. Less well understood is the economic value they add.
Health workers help people stay at work, thereby contributing to productivity. They also contribute to more resilient economies and societies that are able to withstand shocks such as outbreaks and natural disasters.
In western Africa, where underpaid, ill-prepared, and underequipped health workers were overwhelmed by the Ebola outbreak, the World Bank has estimated economic losses of US $2.2 billion, including a 24 percent contraction of gross domestic product in Sierra Leone in 2015.
In many countries around the world, the health sector has created jobs at a faster rate than other sectors over the past 10 years, particularly for women. About half of the new private sector jobs created in the United States of America between 2001 and 2012 were in the health sector. In the European Union, the health and social sectors employ 20 million people, or about 10 percent of total employment, and women represent about 80 percent of the European Union’s health workforce.
“We’ve seen in high-income and emerging economies the health labor market as a driver of economic growth and social prosperity,” said Jim Campbell, director of WHO’s Health Workforce department. “We need to apply lessons from both the public and private sectors to our work in lower- and middle-income countries.”
Health workers may be more valuable than ever in the context of a global economy facing significant employment challenges. Global unemployment will rise to almost 200 million people this year, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
Yet despite emerging evidence that investing in health workers contributes to economic growth, health workforce investments have been cut in some countries, and restrictions have been placed on hiring even in the face of substantial unmet health and social needs. However, the need for well-trained health workers is only going to increase.
Recent estimates from the World Bank indicate that aging populations and changing disease trends will generate an unprecedented demand for around 40 million new health workers by 2030, mostly in middle- and high-income countries.
Conversely, WHO projects a growing shortfall of 18 million health workers required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, by 2030, primarily in low- and lower-middle-income countries.
That mismatch will be compounded by the migration of health workers from lower-income countries to higher-income countries in search of better wages and working conditions. In 2013-14, more than 1 million foreign trained doctors and nurses were working in countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), accounting for 17 percent of doctors and 6 percent of nurses on average.
“These projections tell us what we will get with a business-as-usual approach,” Campbell said. “If we think of it as a barrier or a crisis, we’ll never change anything. This is an opportunity to think of new approaches.”
In January 2016, WHO’s Executive Board reviewed “Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030,” which will be considered by the World Health Assembly in May. The strategy aims to accelerate progress towards universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals by giving countries policy options to ensure all people can access health workers when and where they need them.
The United Nations Secretary-General recently established a commission to identify innovative ways of stimulating health sector employment. The commission, which will hold its first meeting in Lyon this month, will be chaired by President François Hollande of France and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, along with ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria, are vice-chairs of the commission.