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An Advocate for Health Workers

There's a looming global shortage of 18 million health workers. Can advocacy help fix it?

Health workers are the backbone of strong health systems and thriving communities. Yet by 2030, the world will face a shortage of up to 18 million providers—hurting primarily those in low- and middle-income countries.

That means mothers will go without necessary care, newborns will go without the assistance often needed to take their first breath of life, and countless patients will forgo the quality nursing and medical care they need and deserve.

Advocacy can make a difference in every single community, in every single country.

Vince Blaser is the director of the Frontline Health Workers Coalition (FHWC), an alliance of organizations working together to urge greater and more strategic U.S. investment in frontline health workers in developing countries as a cost-effective way to save lives and foster a healthier, safer, and more prosperous world. Seed Global Health is a proud member of FHWC, adding a point of view that investments in doctors, nurses, and midwives can create a positive ripple effect across entire health systems and nations.

Seed Global Health director of communications Zack Langway interviewed Mr. Blaser about the role of the FHWC and why its mission is more important today than ever before.

Zack Langway (ZL): Thanks for taking time to chat with us, Vince. The Frontline Health Workers Coalition represents a wealth of experience and expertise in improving health around the world. What is the role of the organization in strengthening the global health workforce, and how do you accomplish that?

Vince Blaser (VB): The Frontline Health Workers Coalition harnesses the collective expertise, experiences, and voice of public and private US-based organizations, outside of government, to advocate for greater and more strategic US and global investment in frontline health workers in low- and middle-income countries.

We do this by hosting regular coalition meetings to brainstorm and execute joint advocacy activities, implementing education and advocacy outreach to US and global policy-makers and influencers, developing policy analyses and recommendations, and conducting communications activities to highlight the amazing impact of frontline health workers and the political imperative to support them.

ZL: Why is the need for health workers so urgent, and how does training and teaching play a role in meeting that urgent need?

VB: Throughout our lives, health workers are central to our health and prosperity. Yet more than 400 million people lack access to the essential services provided by health workers on the front lines of care.

This lack of access to frontline health workers is a central reason millions of children die before they reach age 5, that hundreds of thousands of women die in childbirth, and millions die of diseases and conditions that could have otherwise been prevented by the presence of a trained and supported health worker.

Health workforce shortages affect not only the communities that lack access, they threaten the entire world—as we saw from the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

Central to increasing communities’ access to frontline health workers is ensuring health workers have the training and educational support needed to perform their jobs. This holds true both for the training and education aspiring health workers receive, as well as in-service training and education of existing health workers.

This complexity has, at times, left health workers as something of an afterthought.

ZL: Where can advocacy make a difference, and how are health workers themselves engaging as advocates for a stronger workforce?

VB: Advocacy can make a difference in every single community, every single country, and in every single region.

As a result of advocacy efforts, ensuring a robust, fit-for-purpose health workforce is enshrined as a target in the Sustainable Development Goals, the first-ever Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030, and the five-year action plan of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth (HEEG Commission).

These advocacy wins will only result in sustainable change if advocates around the world push from the community to global levels of effective implementation of goals and strategies to achieve these ambitious yet achievable targets for the health workforce.

Frontline health workers themselves are the most powerful advocates for effective implementation, as their direct experience sheds the greatest light on the need for greater and more effective investment in their work.

ZL: What are the major “moments” on your radar where you’re hoping to see progress—announcements, commitments, data indicating some success in closing the gap—in human resources for health?

VB: The forthcoming Fourth Global Forum on Human Resources for Health in Dublin, Ireland, this November will be a seminal moment for health workforce experts around the world to come together to assess the state of the global health workforce and initial progress and planning on some of the goals and compacts I mentioned earlier. We are hoping the five-year action plan of the HEEG Commission I mentioned earlier will result in firm commitments by both government and nongovernment stakeholders for financing country-led plans to address the most acute issues facing their health workforce.

As FHWC has underscored in a policy analysis, we are also hoping that collection of data for all health worker cadres—including community health workers—is urgently prioritized, especially in forthcoming WHO guidelines on community health workers.

Frontline health workers are their own most powerful advocates.

ZL: Where have efforts to bolster the health workforce failed so far, and what can we do differently in the SDGs framework than we did in the MDGs framework to improve outcomes in strengthening health workers?

VB: Ensuring a fit-for-purpose and sustainable health workforce is a complex issue involving education, poverty, labor, mobility, access to proper supplies, etc.

The financing and jurisdiction over health workers is equally, if not more, complex. This complexity has at times left health workers as something of an afterthought even though policy-makers and influencers have often agreed about the urgent need for action to strengthen the global health workforce.

The SDGs and compacts unanimously agreed at the World Health Assembly to provide a strong, country-led framework that made strengthening the health workforce a central component of achieving progress across all health issues. This provides some momentum and optimism that health workers will no longer be seen as a global health policy afterthought, but rather as the center of sustainable progress on health in the coming decades.

This post originally appeared on Seed Global Health