Do most countries have enough health workers?

Online Q&A
26 February 2008

Q: Do most countries have enough health workers?

A: Fifty-seven countries, most of them in Africa and Asia, face severe health workforce shortages. WHO estimates that at least
2 360 000 health service providers and 1 890 000 management and support workers, or a total of 4 250 000 health workers, are needed to fill the gap.

Sub-Saharan Africa faces the greatest challenges. While it has 25% of the global burden of disease, it has only 3% of the world's health workers. Thirty-six countries in Africa are confronting critical shortages, meaning they have fewer than 2.3 doctors, nurses and midwives per 1000 people. These countries are unable to provide basic, life-saving services in a consistent manner. For example, they generally fail to achieve an 80% coverage rate for measles immunization or the presence of skilled birth attendants. Without prompt action, the shortage will worsen.

In developed countries, a rise in chronic health problems among ageing populations and the ageing of their own health workforces has led to an ever-growing demand for health workers. The push of poor working conditions at home and the pull of higher salaries abroad drive thousands of health workers from developing countries to jobs in wealthy countries each year, making shortages worse.

To tackle this crisis, more direct investment in the training and support of health workers is needed now. Initial funds will be needed to train more health workers. As they graduate and enter the workforce, more funds will be needed to pay their salaries. Countries cannot do this alone, however. They need help from international donors.

WHO is urging all countries to make the health workforce a priority and put in place a national plan for managing it. Governments also need to invest in training existing health workers, to keep them up to date with changing priorities.

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