By Vince Blaser, Frontline Health Workers Coalition
NOTE: This piece was originally posted in the Healthy Newborn Network Blog.
WASHINGTION, DC – At the close of a week where I witnessed one of the first plastic surgeons in Bangladesh captivate Capitol Hill with accounts of saving lives of women and children accidentally or deliberately burned in his country and pleas to support deployment of more frontline health workers to prevent those burns, I sat in the World Bank listening to major power brokers in global health policy discussing what can and might be in 2030. I wondered: will we look back at this time as a key moment in a powerful and sustained drive toward ensuring every person has access to quality health services, or will weak support of health workers continue to entrap at least 1 billion people with little to no access?
It’s easy to be a sceptic and pick the latter, but in the last decade working in global health I’ve already seen such sea changes happen. From slashing early annual childhood deaths in half since 1990 to having an AIDS-free generation within our sights – the combination of strong advocacy, political will and investment from public donors, and private sector commitment has been a powerful force to save and improve the lives of millions in this century.
But with the target date to achieve the health Millennium Development Goals (4, 5 and 6) approaching next year, where does the focus need to go to make the most impact? The World Bank made its view clear Friday – the focus should move squarely to ensuring that by 2030, everyone has access to health services that do not push them or keep them in poverty under the framework of universal health coverage (UHC).
This expansion of access to services from maternal care to malaria prevention simply cannot happen without major efforts to strengthen the health workforce to deliver services. The World Health Organization and the Global Health Workforce Alliance recently reported that 7.2 million more doctors, nurses and midwives than are currently serving are needed for everyone to have access to essential, lifesaving health services – a gap which could reach 12.9 million by 2035 if we keep with the status quo.
World Health Worker Week – during which leaders and advocates came together both in person and on social media to pay tribute to those who serve to make our lives healthy and prosperous – brought to the fore just how necessary it is to strengthen the global health workforce, especially on the frontlines of care.
From the inspirational stories shared by the health workers honored by The REAL Awards in Washington, to advocates in Malawi visiting health workers and taking their concerns to their government, to story after story virtually shared of how a frontline health worker safely delivered a newborn to a healthy mom, administered a lifesaving vaccine, or provided knowledge on how to keep a child from dying from malaria or pneumonia – World Health Worker Week left no doubt on the impact frontline health workers have in delivering the health outcomes we seek. United States Agency for International Development global health chief Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez stated it this way in an opinion piece: the health workforce gap “presents a major development challenge and barrier to meeting the health goals of ending preventable child and maternal deaths and reaching an AIDS-free generation.”
So, how do we do it? The Frontline Health Workers Coalition, Global Health Workforce Alliance and Health Workforce Advocacy Initiative in a joint World Health Worker Week statement wrote that we can start by “strong and swift implementation” of the 83 concrete commitments to support the Recife Declaration on Human Resources for Health, “backed by sufficient resources and clear health workforce targets included within the post-2015 global development framework.” IntraHealth International President and CEO Pape Gaye in an opinion piece outlined five key steps to ensure health workers are centered in the world’s post-2015 commitments.
I am optimistic that in 15 years when we’re knocking at the door of the 2030 date discussed Friday at the World Bank, we will see many more frontline health workers like Anniekie Nkhumeleni and her team of community health workers Lwamondo, South Africa, delivering services and referrals across the gamut of health issues. If that happens, we should also be knocking at the door of fulfilling the ideals encapsulated by the MDGs of healthy mothers, newborns and families the world over.