Health workforce shortage to reach 12.9m 'within decades'

12 November, 2013

The world will be short of 12.9 million healthcare workers by 2035, with a figure already standing at 7.2 million, according to a recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report.

The report warned that the findings – if not addressed immediately – will have "serious implications" for billions of people across all regions of the world.

WHO's "A universal truth: No health without a work force" identified a number of key causes:

  • An ageing health workforce with staff retiring or leaving for better paid jobs without being replaced, while inversely, not enough young people are entering the profession or being adequately trained.
  • Increasing demands are also being put on the sector from a growing world population with risks of non-communicable diseases — cancer, heart disease, stroke etc — increasing.
  • Internal and international migration of health workers is also exacerbating regional imbalances.

The findings were released at the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health.

"The foundations for a strong and effective health workforce for the future are being corroded in front of our very eyes by failing to match today's supply of professionals with the demands of tomorrow's populations," said Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO assistant director-general for Health Systems and Innovation.

"To prevent this happening, we must rethink and improve how we teach, train, deploy and pay health workers so that their impact can widen."

While the report highlights some encouraging developments, for example, more countries have increased their health workforce, progressing towards the basic threshold of 23 skilled health professionals per 10,000 people, there are still 83 countries below this basic threshold.

The report says the current rate of training of new health professionals is falling well below current and projected demand. The result will be that in the future, the sick will find it even harder to get the essential services they need and preventive services will suffer.

"One of the challenges for achieving universal health coverage is ensuring that everyone – especially people in vulnerable communities and remote areas – has access to well-trained, culturally-sensitive and competent health staff," said Dr Carissa Etienne, WHO regional director for the Americas.

"The best strategy for achieving this is by strengthening multidisciplinary teams at the primary health care level."

WHO urged "all countries" to heed the signals of shortages.

The Third Global Forum for Human Resources for Health is an event held on human resources for health, with more than 1300 participants from 85 countries, including 40 ministers of health.