Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Health Worker of the Future: Four Key Roles They’ll Play in the 21st Century

February 07, 2014

Every week here on Impatient Optimists, you'll find stories written by one of the Frontline Health Workers Coalition’s 35+ member organizations. Stories feature the inspiring work of health workers on the frontlines of care in developing countries and how United States leadership can help ensure that everyone has access to basic care by skilled, supported and motivated frontline health workers#healthworkerscount

The health worker of the future—whether it’s a primary care physician, a community health worker, a faculty member, or other frontline health worker—will be living in a whole new paradigm. The challenges and opportunities will be unique. And health workers will need a brand new complement of competencies, aptitudes, and tools to address them. 

In the post-Millennium Development Goals era, health workers, deployed where they’re most needed, will help us achieve once unthinkable targets—an AIDS-free generation, the end of preventable maternal and child deaths, and universal access to contraception, to name a few. As countries strive toward universal health coverage and as demographic and epidemiological trends evolve, the demand for more health services and more health workers will grow.

In fact, the Global Health Workforce Alliance (GHWA)/World Health Organization (WHO) report, "A Universal Truth: No Health Without a Workforce," estimates a potential global deficit of about 12.9 million skilled health workers by 2035 if we do not make a concerted effort to alter current trends.

With strong leadership from WHO, GHWA, the United States government, and many other partners, two important gatherings in the last three months helped move the dialogue forward about building the health workforce we’ll need as health challenges evolve over the next 20 years: the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health in Recife, Brazil, last November, and the Prince Mahidol Award Conference on Transformative Learning for Health Equity in Pattaya, Thailand, last week.

 I propose a new vision for the essential roles that successful health workers will play in a post-2015 world. This is a vision of a fully empowered and engaged health worker, in control of her own career path and able to thrive in the 21st century.Building on the recommendations from those two gatherings, I propose a new vision for the essential roles that successful health workers will play in a post-2015 world. This is a vision of a fully empowered and engaged health worker, in control of her own career path and able to thrive in the 21st century.

Here are a few of the key roles such health workers will play:

The lifelong learner. Health workers must be able to adapt to the rapidly changing environment and keep abreast of the latest scientific and technical advances. Learning, as such, is a lifelong pursuit. We need to better attract and prepare young people for careers as health workers, beginning as early as elementary school. Many children, especially girls in rural settings, don’t have access to adequate science or math education. This is a significant barrier and we need to overcome it. Linkages between basic education, in-service training, and continual professional development opportunities must create rich environments for ongoing learning throughout a health worker’s life. Luckily, new frameworks and tools are becoming available that put learning squarely in the hands of workers.

The change agent. As the human face of the health system, the health worker is uniquely positioned to influence the system’s other pillars and effect the changes that will be necessary to achieve universal health coverage. The 2010 Lancet report “Education of Health Professionals for the 21st Century,” calls for educational institutions to instill health workers with the competencies and values necessary to effect positive changes in their own organizations and communities. Further, through their professional associations and colleagues, health workers must be powerful change agents to advance positive practice and collaborative work environments and to influence individual behaviors and societal norms.

 The tech-savvy health worker of the future will be using the latest technologies as well as designing technology to enhance health education and practice.The technologist. Rapid advances in technology and bandwidth are reshaping health education and practice. In Pattaya last week, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, were a hotly debated topic. Countries and educational institutions will need to set enabling and coherent policy environments that promote equitable, cost-efficient, and effective uptake of e/mLearning and e/mHealth. Many innovations are already underway. The tech-savvy health worker of the future will be using the latest technologies as well as designing technology to enhance health education and practice.

The networker. A resounding theme in Pattaya was the call for mobilizing “networks of networks,” to build a broader and more effective movement for human resources for health. Health workers will be called upon more and more to reach beyond their professional disciplines, to work in teams, and to seek alliances outside the health sector (with the education and economic development sectors, for example) as well as with community structures. The successful health worker will take down silos, draw upon extensive connections, and work together with others for health. We in global organizations such as IntraHealth, health ministries, donors, and the private sector must do more to open up our networks to make it easier for health workers to get plugged in to the latest trends.

What other roles do you envision for the health worker of the 21st century?

 
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