There is no questioning the central roles of health workers within the health system and how they are one of the most valuable resources for delivering quality health care. However, the chronic nature of health workforce challenges globally presents genuine concerns bordering on the ability to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC), the key to improving overall health outcomes.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, health systems globally and more so in Africa struggled with roadblocks across the human resource chain of training, recruitment, distribution, and retention of quality and strong health workforce. The situation got worse with the onset of the pandemic, exposing huge gaps and vulnerabilities within the health system with an overstretched and burnt-out workforce struggling to hold the center in place. High death (estimated between 80,000 and 180,000 between January 2020 and May 2021) and infection rates among the health workforce pointed to the urgent need to minimize exposure to risks while providing appropriate and adequate resources to better recognize the sacrifices, enhance the safety and well-being, hear the voices, and meet the needs of health workers going forward.
The theme of the 2023 World Health Worker Week, “Invest in Health Workers”, highlights the multifaceted benefits that accrue from scaling up investments in quality and strong health workforce; it serves as leverage for building stronger economies, climate resilience, gender equity, better emergency responses, and health for all. The question then arises; how can we build up the health workforce in the face of obvious Post Covid fiscal constraints? Already, countries across the world have recognized UHC as a fundamental human right and made commitments to utilize it as a vehicle to achieve health for all. How should countries strategically invest in the health workforce to realize the UHC commitment?
Considering that women make up more than 70% of the health workforce across cadres, gender equity must be a priority, right from policy formulation through to its implementation, to ensure the protection of health workers irrespective of gender. Government and institutional budgetary allocations and complete disbursements must be made, bearing in mind that investments in the health workforce present multiple advantages that extend beyond the health system. Health workers should benefit from the best education and continuous professional training while ensuring balanced geographical distribution at all levels. Fair and consistent wages must be provided to ensure a stable source of livelihood while also improving health worker motivation, retention, and performance, especially in low-income countries. Adequate provision of health worker job/ personal satisfaction and safety-related resources such as essential equipment, medicines, and counseling services, among others, should never be compromised across the health system to enable effective and efficient health workforce performance. Importantly, the availability of comprehensive and accurate disaggregated data on the health workforce, particularly pertaining to numbers, distribution, historical trends, and attrition for planning and accountability, cannot be overemphasized.
Calculated health workforce investments are needed now more than ever to build resilient health systems and stronger communities globally for improved routine health services and emergency responses which though unforeseen, will certainly come.
Let’s not waste any more time.
Happy Health Worker Week!