Moving forward together
An imperative for action
The unmistakable imperative is to strengthen the workforce so that health systems can tackle crippling diseases and achieve national and global health goals. A strong human infrastructure is fundamental to closing today’s gap between health promise and health reality and anticipating the health challenges of the 21st century.
Momentum for action has grown steadily over recent years. Member States of WHO, spearheaded by health leaders from Africa, adopted two resolutions at recent World Health Assemblies calling for global action to build a workforce for national health systems, including stemming the flow of unplanned professional emigration. Europe and Latin America have promoted regional observatories in human resources for health, and the South-East Asia and Eastern Mediterranean Regional Offices have launched new public health training initiatives. One hundred global health leaders in the Joint Learning Initiative recommended urgent action to overcome the crisis of human resources for health. Calls for action have come from a series of High-Level Forums for the health-related MDGs in Geneva, Abuja and Paris, and two Oslo Consultations have nurtured a participatory stakeholder process to chart a way forward. A clear mandate has emerged for a global plan of action bringing forth national leadership backed by global solidarity.
Strong country strategies require both solid technical content and a credible political process. This involves embracing the breadth of issues inherent in the entry–workforce– exit framework while cultivating trust and brokering agreements through effective engagement of stakeholders in planning and implementation. In addition, national strategies are likely to be more successful if they adopt three priorities: acting now, anticipating the future, and acquiring critical capabilities.
- Acting now for workforce productivity by cutting waste (such as eliminating ghost workers and absenteeism) and improving performance through compensation adjustments, work incentives, safer working conditions, and worker mobilization efforts. Better intelligence gathering is crucial in order to understand national situations and monitor progress or setbacks.
- Anticipating the future by engaging stakeholders to craft national strategic plans through evidence-based information and scenarios on likely future trends. Significant growth of private education and services should be anticipated, necessitating the targeting of public funds for health equity, promotion and prevention. Public action in information, regulation and delegation are key functions for mixed public and private systems.
- Acquiring critical capacities by strengthening core institutions for sound workforce development. Leadership and management development in health and other related sectors such as education and finance is essential for strategic planning and implementation of workforce policies. Standard setting, accrediting and licensing must be effectively established to improve the work of worker unions, educational institutions, professional associations and civil society.
National strategies on their own, however well conceived, are insufficient to deal with the realities of health workforce challenges today and in the future. Strategies across countries are similarly constrained by patchy evidence, limited planning tools and a scarcity of technical expertise. Outbreaks of disease and labour market inflections transcend national boundaries, and the depth of the workforce crisis in a significant group of countries requires international assistance. National leadership must therefore be complemented by global solidarity on at least three fronts: knowledge and learning; cooperative agreements; and responsiveness to workforce crises.
- Catalysing knowledge and learning. Low-cost but significant investments in the development of better metrics for the workforce, agreement on common technical frameworks, and the identification of and support for priority research will accelerate progress in all countries. Effective pooling of the diverse technical expertise and breadth of experiences can assist countries in accessing the best talent and practices.
- Striking cooperative agreements. The growing international nature of the health workforce related to the flows of migrants, relief workers and volunteers calls for cooperative agreements to protect the rights and safety of workers and to enhance the adoption of ethical recruitment practices. The current global situation regarding avian influenza is indicative of a more fundamental need for effective international capacity to marshal the requisite human resources for acute health and humanitarian emergencies.
- Responding to workforce crises. The magnitude of the health workforce crisis in the world’s poorest countries cannot be overstated and requires an urgent, sustained and coordinated response from the international community. Donors must facilitate the immediate and longer-term financing of human resources as a health systems investment. A 50:50 guideline is recommended, whereby 50% of all international assistance funds are devoted to health systems, with half of this funding devoted to national health workforce strengthening strategies. Development financing policies must find ways to ensure that hiring ceilings are not the primary constraint to workforce expansion. All partners should critically evaluate their modalities for supporting the workforce with a view to shedding inefficient practices and aligning more effectively with national leadership.
National leadership and global solidarity can result in significant structural improvements of the workforce in all countries, especially those with the most severe crises. Such advances would be characterized by universal access to a motivated, competent and supported health workforce, greater worker, employer and public satisfaction, and more effective stewardship of the workforce by the state, civil society and professional associations.
Plan of action
National leadership must urgently jump-start country-based actions and sustain them for at least a decade. Table 2 summarizes targets in the plan of action over the decade 2006–2015.
- Immediate actions over the next few years should consist of lead countries pioneering national plans for scaling up effective strategies, increasing investments, cutting waste, and strengthening educational institutions. Global support should accelerate progress in countries, with immediate policy attention given to intelligence, technical cooperation, policy alignment of fiscal space and migration, and harmonization of priority initiatives and donor assistance.
- At the decade’s mid-point, over half of all countries should have sound national plans with expanded execution of good policies and management practices concerned with workforce incentives, regulation and institutions. Global advances will include shared norms and frameworks, strong technical support, and improved knowledge management. Responsible recruitment and alignment of priority programmes and development instruments to support the health workforce should be in place.
- The decade goal in all countries is to build high-performing workforces for national health systems to respond to current and emerging challenges. This means that every country should have implemented national strategic plans and should be planning for the future, drawing on robust national capacity. Globally, a full range of evidence-based guidelines should inform good practice for health workers. Effective cooperative agreements will minimize adverse consequences despite increased international flows of workers. Sustained international financing should be in place to support recipient countries for the next 10 years as they scale up their workforce.
Moving forward together
Moving forward on the plan of action necessitates that stakeholders work together through inclusive alliances and networks – local, national and global – across health problems, professions, disciplines, ministries, sectors and countries. Cooperative structures can pool limited talent and fiscal resources and promote mutual learning. Figure 5 proposes how a global workforce alliance can be launched to bring relevant stakeholders to accelerate core country programmes.
A premier challenge is advocacy that promotes workforce issues to a high place on the political agenda and keeps them there. The moment is ripe for political support as problem awareness is expanding, effective solutions are emerging, and various countries are already pioneering interventions. Workforce development is a continuous process that is always open for improvement. However, immediate acceleration of performance can be attained in virtually all countries if well-documented solutions are applied. Some of the work should be implemented immediately; other aspects will take time. There are no short cuts and there is no time to lose. Now is the time for action, to invest in the future, and to advance health – rapidly and equitably.