The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today warned of the serious implications for billions worldwide due to the shortage of healthcare workers, which is estimated to grow to 12.9 million by 2035 from the current deficit of 7.2 million.
A report released by the agency at the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health, held in Recife, Brazil, attributes this projected increase to factors such as an ageing health workforce with staff retiring or leaving for better paid jobs without being replaced, coupled with not enough young people entering the profession or being adequately trained.
Another factor is the increasing demands being put on the sector from a growing world population with rising risks of non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease and stroke. Internal and international migration of health workers is also exacerbating regional imbalances, WHO added in a news release.
The report recommends a number of actions to address workforce shortages, including increased political and technical leadership in countries to support long-term human resource development efforts, and maximizing the role of mid-level and community health workers to make frontline health services more accessible and acceptable.
"The foundations for a strong and effective health workforce for the future are being corroded in front of our very eyes by failing to match today's supply of professionals with the demands of tomorrow's populations," says Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation.
"To prevent this happening, we must rethink and improve how we teach, train, deploy and pay health workers so that their impact can widen," Dr. Kieny added.
The report, entitled A universal truth: No health without a work force, noted that more countries have increased their health workforce. However, it also pointed out that the current rate of training of new health professionals is falling well below current and projected demand.
"The result will be that in the future, the sick will find it even harder to get the essential services they need and preventive services will suffer," WHO said.
While the largest shortages in terms of numbers are expected to be in parts of Asia, it is in sub-Saharan Africa where the shortages will be especially acute, according to the agency. On education and training, for example, there are only 168 medical schools in the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Of those countries, 11 have no medical schools, and 24 countries have only one medical school.
"One of the challenges for achieving universal health coverage is ensuring that everyone - especially people in vulnerable communities and remote areas - has access to well-trained, culturally-sensitive and competent health staff," says Carissa Etienne, WHO Regional Director for the Americas. "The best strategy for achieving this is by strengthening multidisciplinary teams at the primary health care level."
Universal Health Coverage, said WHO, aims to ensure that all people obtain the health services they need without suffering financial hardship when paying for them.
In the Americas, 70 per cent of countries have enough health care workers to carry out basic health interventions, but those countries still face significant challenges linked to the distribution of professionals, their migration and appropriate training and skills mix.
"Training of health professionals must be aligned with the health needs of the country," adds Dr. Etienne.
The developed world, WHO noted, is expected to lose 40 per cent of its nurses in the next decade. "With demanding work and relatively low pay, the reality is that many young health workers receive too few incentives to stay in the profession," said the agency.
The Third Global Forum for Human Resources for Health is the largest event ever held on human resources for health, with more than 1,300 participants from 85 countries, including 40 Ministers of Health.