The global healthcare workforce is in the midst of a growing crisis. Shortages of trained healthcare professionals, including physicians, nurses, midwives, technicians, and public health workers, pose a serious threat to health systems around the world. The World Health Organization estimates a global deficit of approximately 18 million health workers needed to achieve and sustain universal health coverage. This underscores the urgent need for greater investment in healthcare workforce training and development.
Adequate financing and building training capacity are key strategies to strengthen the healthcare workforce. However, data shows current levels of spending and access to training opportunities are highly inadequate, especially in low- and middle-income countries. For example, only 6% of global health spending is devoted to health workforce training and education.
There are also glaring gaps in the equitable distribution of workers, with rural and marginalized communities bearing the brunt of shortages. Targeted investments are required to equip health workforces with the appropriate skills and capacities to deliver safe, high-quality care and bolster health system resilience. As populations grow and healthcare needs escalate, building the foundation of a skilled, supported workforce through comprehensive training initiatives must be made a priority.
Challenges Facing The Healthcare Workforce
The healthcare workforce is facing pressing challenges on multiple fronts that underscore the need for greater investments in training and development. Quantitative shortages of health workers are projected to worsen globally if not addressed. For example, the United States could experience a shortage of up to 139,000 physicians by 2033 as population health needs grow.
Low- and middle-income countries face an estimated global health worker shortage of 18 million. Shortages span numerous professional roles, including nurses, physicians, midwives, technicians, public health professionals, and community health workers.
Shortages are exacerbated by limited training capacity. Each year, medical schools in the United States turn away over 50,000 qualified applicants due to space constraints. Growth of nursing programs and clinical training sites has not kept pace with demand. Such limitations restrict the supply pipeline of newly trained professionals entering the workforce. Gaps in ongoing skills training also impact workforce readiness. Although programs like Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) are essential for learning to save childrens’ lives and generally maintaining life-saving skills, there is uneven access and implementation of such continuing education, posing risks to effective emergency response.
Maldistribution of health workers also contributes to severe shortages and lack of access to care in certain areas, especially rural and lower-income communities. Disparities in the diversity of the workforce, including racial, ethnic, and gender representation, further compound inequitable access to care. Meanwhile, public health threats spotlight the need for expanded public health training to prevent and respond to health emergencies.
Benefits of Investing In Workforce Training
Increased investment in healthcare workforce training and development can yield tangible benefits and have a multiplier effect in strengthening health systems. Most fundamentally, it helps build the quantity and enhance the quality of healthcare professionals to address staffing shortages. Expanding training capacity and opportunities enables more nurses, physicians, technicians and other workers to be recruited and deployed.
Investment in training boosts skills and competencies to enable the delivery of safe, high-quality, patient-centered care. Health workers can be better prepared to respond to emerging health issues and adopt new technologies. Ongoing skills development also promotes professional advancement and leadership. Workforce investments can further spur economic growth, job creation, and poverty reduction, especially in underserved communities. The health sector is a major source of employment in most countries.
Building a robust, highly trained health workforce promotes resilience of health systems to withstand crises like disease outbreaks or natural disasters. It also enhances the capacity to achieve population health goals and progress toward universal health coverage. Finally, a focus on training helps expand diversity and representation in the health workforce, which improves access to care for marginalized populations.
Recommendations For Investment
Realizing the benefits of healthcare workforce training and development will require dedicated efforts to increase and optimize investments. Some recommendations include:
- Increasing domestic health spending allocated to workforce training initiatives, with a focus on comprehensive investments across the whole worker lifecycle from recruitment to continuing education.
- Assessing barriers to accessing training faced by rural, lower-income and minority populations, and implementing strategies to improve equitable access.
- Leveraging technology like simulation training, e-learning and mobile platforms to increase reach and scale of training programs.
- Developing national health workforce strategies aligned to population health needs and designed to achieve self-sufficiency.
- Focusing on supportive supervision, safe working conditions, leadership development and occupational safety to motivate and retain the existing workforce.
- Fostering international cooperation and technical support to build training capacity in developing countries facing critical shortages.
- Promoting training across health disciplines and care settings to foster team-based, people-centered care.
- Engaging the private sector to supplement public funding and encourage shared investment in workforce development.
- Monitoring outcomes and trends through data collection and research to guide evidence-based policies on health workforce training.
Strengthening the healthcare workforce worldwide through greater investment in training and development is vital to achieving universal health coverage and building more resilient health systems. As the challenges facing the global workforce continue to escalate, countries must act now to implement comprehensive workforce strategies centered on expanding access to quality training opportunities.
Targeted financing to build capacity and close equity gaps is crucial. Investments should focus both on growing the quantity of health workers to meet growing demands, and continuously developing their skills and capacities. The result will be a workforce empowered and equipped to provide care that saves lives, reduces costs, and helps populations reach their full health potential.
Global cooperation and multi-sector engagement are needed to mobilize the resources and commitment required to fully realize the manifold benefits at stake from developing our healthcare workforces. The ultimate returns will be measured in improved health outcomes, economic progress, and health security for all people.