Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

What if Everyone Had Access to a Health Worker?

September 03, 2013
Three years ago, the Global Health Workforce Alliance invited all of us to imagine a world in which every person could see a health worker whenever and wherever they need one.

Sadly, this world is far away from the one we inhabit – some estimate that as many as one billion people never get to see a health worker in their lives. 

What does this mean?

Babies are born without the help of midwives or skilled health care providers and go without life-saving immunizations. Women never receive advice on nutrition or family planning. Women, men, children and newborns have no one to care for them when they get sick.

Personally, I find that hard to imagine and even harder to accept. 

That’s why I’m hoping that representatives from the world’s richest countries will agree to close the global health worker gap once and for all when they meet in Oslo, Norway later this week. It is estimated that at least 3.5 million additional health workers are needed, including 1 million community health workers.

This meeting is part of the build-up to the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health in November where governments will be asked to stand up and commit to actions that will help to build the health workforce needed to achieve universal health coverage. 

The scale of the global health worker crisis has long been known, with the 1st Global Forum in Kampala drawing worldwide attention to the issue seven years ago. Since then,many countries have made great strides by training more health workers, better supporting existing health workers, and giving a greater role to community health workers. 

However, there is still much more work to do. Fifty-seven countries were identified in 2006 by the World Health Organization as having a ‘critical shortage’ of health workers. None of them have yet increased coverage of doctors, nurses and midwives to the level where they would be removed from this category. 

 Increased international cooperation is essential to overcome the health workforce crisis in the countries with the highest burden of newborn and child deaths.

Through bilateral aid programs and global initiatives including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Every Woman Every Child, governments of high income countries have already made ambitious commitments to save the lives of women and children. However, the success of these initiatives is being held back by the shortage of skilled health workers in the right places at the right times. 

Increased international cooperation is therefore essential to overcome the health workforce crisis in the countries with the highest burden of newborn and child deaths. Through financial resources and shared knowledge and expertise, high income countries can help countries build health workforces that are able to deal with the major causes of mortality and ill health among women and children.

As health officials from the world’s richest countries gather in Norway, I hope they take inspiration from their host country that has one of the highest health worker densities in the world - though they have faced their own challenges.

I hope world leaders are able to imagine a world where every person can see a health worker and that they seize the opportunity of the 3rd Global Forum to make this happen. 

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