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The Seven-Billionth Person: A Global Health Workforce Perspective

On October 31st the world welcomed Danica in the Philippines, Nargis in India, and numerous other babies who symbolize the seven-billionth person on our planet. It’s a timely moment to shine some light on the implications of population growth for the health and well-being of all our children and the generations to come.

Here’s the crux: the global shortage of health workers translates to an estimated billion people with no access to essential health services, according to a 2010 World Health Organization (WHO) report.So exactly how many health workers do we need to address this problem? The WHO has determined that 2.3 doctors, nurses, and midwives per thousand people is the minimum threshold needed to cover the population with essential health services. This is commonly referred to as the health worker density ratio.

Now here’s where the issue of population growth comes in. Planning and policy efforts to improve the health worker density ratio have focused on increasing the ratio’s numerator (health workers). Makes sense, right? But they’ve largely ignored the ratio’s denominator (population size).

In other words, as population size increases, countries need an ever-greater number of health workers to achieve the desired ratio. While countries are working hard to train and deploy skilled providers, the countries will find it increasingly challenging to meet the minimum health worker density ratio the faster their populations grow.

Currently, 57 countries don’t meet the WHO threshold of health worker density. Many of these countries have high rates of population growth. As a result, these countries will require significant increases in the number of additional health workers needed over the coming decades. An increasing rate of population growth will defray important gains in health worker production. A gloomy prospect.

But here’s the good news: countries that manage to slow their rates of population growth can achieve the desired health worker density ratio much faster. And there’s a great opportunity to take action: many of the 57 countries have very high levels of unmet need for family planning and very low levels of modern method contraceptive use. Meeting men’s and women’s needs for family planning can significantly impact population growth as a result of lower fertility rates. And in turn, lowering the rate of population growth can result in fewer additional health workers needed to reach the threshold health worker density ratio.

As a new CapacityPlus publication concludes, health policy-makers and planners would be wise to combine efforts to meet their countries’ family planning needs with a simultaneous investment in the health workforce. Then there will be a greater chance that Danica and Nargis will have access to a health worker and the essential care needed for a healthy and happy life.