By Aanjalie Collure and Zoe Matza, IntraHealth International
Originally from the Health Workforce Advocacy Initiative Blog
Last week, global leaders convened in New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and several side-events dedicated to facilitating discussion on major global issues. With the spread of Ebola in West Africa, the high incidence of preventable maternal and child mortality, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases in many areas, it is clear why side-events devoted to accelerating progress on global health goals consistently maintained high attendance rates throughout the week.
Interestingly, the urgent need to strengthen and support the global health workforce was re-iterated at several of these global health side-events as a critical priority if we are to achieve global health goals. Efforts to reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat infectious diseases,and achieve universal health coverage will be hindered if countries lack a well-staffed, well-trained and well-distributed health workforce underpinning a strong public health system. Below are a list of six memorable moments during UNGA Week when the need to prioritize health workforce strengthening powerfully resonated with all:
1. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Co-Founder Melinda Gates at the Social Good Summit: #HealthWorkersCount for Family Planning
This year’s Social Good Summit held by the UN Foundation, Mashable, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the 92Y featured several discussions about the inaccessibility of critical health technologies and resources to many people around the world. One such discussion was led by Melinda Gates, Co-Founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, who pointed out that women’s desire for family planning resources around the world largely outstrips their accessibility to these resources. Indeed, 222 million women who want access to modern contraceptives lack access to them.
Melinda Gates emphasized the role of health workers as critical providers of these resources for hard-to-reach communities. She also asserted that health clinics not only provide family planning tools and counseling for women, but administer “holistic care” for women before, during, and after their pregnancies as well.
2. Model Liya Kebede and Malawian Midwife Victoria Shaba at the Social Good Summit: #MidwivesMatter for Maternal Health
Another powerful moment at the Social Good Summit was when Victoria Shaba, a Malawian midwife, took the stage to describe how many women in Africa lack access to skilled birth attendants like herself. Her description of one of the most stressful days of work- delivering close to 50 babies and handling numerous labor complications, all in a single night- illustrated the chronic shortage of skilled midwives in rural health clinics.
Model Liya Kebede, who has been a strong advocate for maternal health in Africa, further emphasized the integral role of midwives when she stated, “Most maternal deaths are completely preventable and treatable by a well-trained health worker.”
3. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the African Union, UN Foundation and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria: #HealthWorkersCount for Strong & Resilient Health Systems
In this high-level meeting convened by the Mission of Kenya, in partnership with the African Union, UN Foundation, and PEPFAR, speakers envisioned the possibility of global health convergence between lower and higher-income countries, which would avert nearly 10 million deaths per year.
Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Rwanda’s Minister of Health, emphasized the need for an aggressive scale-up of African health systems, ensuring that there are adequate roads and transportation routes for ambulances, education for health workers, and appropriate sanitation and hygiene facilities for clinics. Dr. Mark Dybul of the Global Fund asserted the need to prioritize investments for improving public health systems by pointing to countries like Uganda, whose relatively strong health system and well-equipped health workforce was integral to controlling and mitigating the spread of Ebola in that country.
Echoing this statement, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta described strong health systems as “what best protect Africans”, and urged for increased domestic financing for health not only to achieve health targets, but also to ensure the long-term prosperity and growth of African economies.
4. Johnson & Johnson and Partners: #HealthWorkersCount for Global Health Innovation
On a September 23 event astutely titled “Health Workers Count”, J&J and its partners brought together NGOs and private sector leaders together in an ideation session dedicated to working together to develop innovative solutions of major HRH issues in regards to health worker training, retention and deployment.
The session encouraged stakeholders to think of the broader health system when developing innovative solutions for common challenges faced by frontline health workers. Despite the explosion of mHealth and other high-tech gadgets for health workers, the session also emphasized the need for innovative ways to improve transportation to-and-from health clinics, improve management, and collect data on the state of a country’s health workforce. At the end of the session, attendees were energized and inspired to build cross-sector partnerships dedicated to supporting health workers in new and innovative ways.
5. Global health leaders from the United States, Pakistan, Japan and Zambia: #HealthWorkersCount for Universal Health Coverage
At a panel discussion hosted by the One Million Community Health Workers Campaign, key advocates for the global health workforce from diverse backgrounds came together to emphasize the need to strengthen human resources for health to achieve universal health coverage.
USAID Assistant Administrator Ariel Pablos-Mendez emphasized the role of health workers by describing them as the “brains, arms, heart and soul of health systems”. Echoing these statement, professor and economist Jeffrey Sachs argued that improving access to frontline health workers was a “no-brainer” with UHC prioritized in the post-2015 global health agenda.
Dr. Sania Nishtat, the first female Minister of Health in Pakistan; Dr. Toda, the Director of HRH at JICA, and Zambian Minister of Health Emerine Kabanshi all discussed how investments in their national health workforce have been critical to accelerating universal health coverage. Nonetheless, they also pointed to persistent challenges in ensuring the safety, retention and geographic distribution of health workers in Pakistan, Japan and Zambia, respectively. In his closing remarks, Pape Gaye, President and CEO of IntraHealth International, powerfully articulated the need for better data, strong advocacy, and targeted investments for health workers if we are to overcome these challenges.
6. Global Leaders Emphasize Why #HealthWorkersCount un #Post2015 Global Health Policy Discussions
During the two panels hosted by the Nigeria-based Centre for Health Sciences, Training, Research, and Development (CHESTRAD), panelists from the U.S., Latin America, Asia, and Africa discussed why greater involvement and cohesion among civil society organizations is needed to ensure bold action is taken to strengthen the health workforce in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and the post-2015 World Health Organization Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health, both of which are currently being formulated by global bodies.
Panelist Pape Gaye, President and CEO of IntraHealth International, highlighted how the tragic events of the Ebola outbreak have made it very difficult for policy makers to ignore what can happen when there are not enough health workers, and not proper health infrastructure, to meet the needs of a population. Gaye called for greater attention and synergy of efforts to strengthen the health workforce to help achieve the vision of the many strategies world leaders have agreed to across global health.
Heather Teixeira of IntraHealth and the Health Workforce Advocacy Initiative (HWAI) spoke about the opportunity that local community service organizations participate in HWAI and other outlets to ensure their voice is heard in these discussions over the strategies and frameworks that will guide the global health policy agenda for the next 15-20 years. Teixeira also highlighted that a soon-to-be released advocacy toolkit from HWAI will provide information on organizations can use their expertise to advocate for better policies and increased investment in health workers at the country, regional and national levels
Broad participation of leaders from numerous national governments, NGOs, civil society and the private sector at several of these events demonstrates the growing support for prioritizing health workforce issues as critical to global health progress. As the world moves into the post-2015 agenda, it is essential that these leaders advocate on behalf of HRH issues as a strong and united front, to ensure that frontline health workers receive the necessary support they need to maximize their life-saving impact around the world.