Last week with the Capitol Dome in Washington, DC, looming in the background, seven health workers from across the United States—from a hospice worker in Flippin, Arkansas, to a chronic disease care doctor in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—became forever linked to a midwife in Uganda, a community health worker in India and eight other inspiring health workers from around the world. We hope that they will look back at this connection, forged as the first recipients of the REAL Awards, and say it helped launch a movement to solve one of the largest hurdles to progress in global health: the huge shortage of trained and supported frontline health workers.
The REAL Awards were given to frontline health workers in the US and around the world providing care under extraordinary circumstances. These women and men are saving lives and building stronger, healthier communities every day. The REAL Awards celebration was the culmination of the first-ever World Health Worker Week—a worldwide effort to support, appreciate, and raise awareness of the vital role of health workers everywhere. Communities, partners, and policymakers around the world mobilized to support the frontline health workers in their communities, as well as called attention to the challenges they face every day.
We also called attention to the sobering facts documented by the World Health Organization: more than 1 billion people have little or no access to essential services, and more than 4 million new health workers, including at least 1 million additional frontline health workers in developing countries, are currently needed to address health care needs. Not addressing this crisis would perpetuate a reality none of us want to see – 48 million women a year giving birth without a skilled health worker present, and millions dying or becoming disabled because of lack of access to basic services.
So while World Health Worker Week and the REAL Awards were nice ways for us to show our gratitude for the health workers that currently save millions of lives, we hope that events like these become a catalyst for the advocacy needed to get the support and co-workers they need to reach everyone. Our organizations—IntraHealth International and Save the Children—are proud to be helping to lead several partnerships that aim to enact this change, including the Frontline Health Workers Coalition in the US and the global Health Workforce Advocacy Initiative.
We’re starting to see effect of this advocacy, from members of the US Congress hearing from the REAL Award winners last week about the need for a US government strategy that focuses on frontline health workers in developing countries, to Ugandan civil society successfully advocating to its Parliament last year for about $20 million to fill critical health posts.
But, as global leaders prepare to gather in Brazil this November for the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health, we realize that much more needs to be done, especially on the frontlines of care. During the forum, advocates around the world will be pressing for leaders to take concrete steps to address the frontline health workforce crisis as a key part of efforts to achieve universal health coverage.
Without more workers like those we honored last week, there will be no one to deliver the essential health care needed to keep families alive and thriving.