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Reconvening Hope for the Future of the Health Workforce

I want to write from Bangkok about why I am excited and hopeful about the future of the global health workforce.

Tomorrow, the Second Global Forum on Human Resources for Health officially kicks off in Bangkok, Thailand, with some of the world’s most prominent leaders working on the global health workforce in attendance. 

We will again be asking, “Is it possible for every person and every community to get the care they need from a skilled health worker?” To the question of universal access to care, I firmly believe the answer is yes, it’s just a matter of how we do it.

In 2006, the World Health Organization established that at least 25 health workers are needed for every 10,000 people to offer basic primary health care services. The global community prioritized, and agreed to fund, these services with the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals. Unfortunately, there are 57 countries with acute human resources crises in the health workforce and there is a global shortage of 4.2 million health workers. [Read more about the health worker shortage on the Global Health Check website.]

In the few intervening years since the groundbreaking WHO report which established both the need and concrete human resources for health goals, I have seen heartening progress. I want to write from Bangkok about why I am excited and hopeful about the future of the global health workforce.

The global community is on board.

It is now clear that without a committed and skilled health workforce, it will be impossible to make meaningful strides in improving global health outcomes. I have been encouraged to see how quickly and clearly the donor community has absorbed this message and has stood behind it in the form of actual investments in the field. Traditional donors, including the United States Agency for International Development, Japan’s International Cooperation Agency, similar agencies in a number of the Scandinavian countries, as well as the Rockefeller Foundation and others have supported the formation of the Global Health Workforce Alliance. This all-important global partnership functions as an international body solely dedicated to improving the global health workforce and is hosting tomorrow’s forum in collaboration with the Royal Thai Government via the Prince Mahidol Award Conference and a consortium of other donors.

We have seen the global community embrace and commit to the need to build strong health systems as a necessary legacy and a clear solution to long-term sustainability. The health workforce is a key pillar of a strong health system. I personally believe it is the entry point for building better health systems.

We are gathered in Thailand, a country leading the way.

That over 1,000 people are gathered today in Thailand is another reason I am heartened about the future of the global health workforce. Thailand is one of the countries that has been the most successful in developing strategies to retain its health workers. Thailand has accomplished this with a combination of approaches, including decentralizing its training schools and giving incentives to workers to stay in rural areas. Thailand also is home to the dynamic Asia-Pacific Action Alliance on Human Resources for Health (AAAH), a regional coalition that supports country capacity building and associate partner on the IntraHealth led USAID-funded CapacityPlus project. While I am here, I plan to learn all I can about the Thai experience, and other regional experiences, and understand how their approaches might be scaled up globally.

New technologies offer new opportunities.

Finally, I look at new information and communication technologies that are being used everywhere. I see the tremendous and growing potential of these tools to transform the lives and work of health workers, even in the most remote areas. In spite of the incredible challenges facing health workers, increasingly we can equip them with the information, tools and support they need to meet the health needs of the communities they serve. I am encouraged that many donors are prioritizing the innovative application of ICT tools and approaches to solving many of the protracted challenges we face in global health. My hope is that health workers themselves can play true leadership roles in defining how ICT applications are designed, introduced and sustained over time. This week’s conference is a great platform for health workers to articulate their perspectives and priorities.