- A severe shortage of health workers in Africa is undermining access to and provision of health services even though countries in the region have tried to bolster the workforce
- A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) found that the region has a ratio of 1.55 health workers (physicians, nurses and midwives) per 1000 people
- The figure is below the WHO threshold density of 4.45 health workers per 1000 people needed to deliver essential health services and achieve universal health coverage
- The shortage is a consequence of several factors, including inadequate training capacity, rapid population growth and international migration
A new report has indicated that a severe shortage of health workers in Africa is undermining access to and provision of health services even though countries in the region have tried to bolster the workforce.
The report by the World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed “The health workforce status in the WHO African Region: findings of a cross-sectional study” found that the region has a ratio of 1.55 health workers (physicians, nurses and midwives) per 1000 people.
The figure is below the WHO threshold density of 4.45 health workers per 1000 people needed to deliver essential health services and achieve universal health coverage.
The study was published in the British Medical Journal Global Health and surveyed 47 African countries.
According to the study, only four countries (Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles and South Africa) have surpassed the WHO health worker-to-population ratio.
Further, the study found that the region’s health workforce is unevenly distributed by country, ranging from 0.25 health workers per 1000 people in Niger (the region’s lowest) to 9.15 health workers per 1000 people in Seychelles – the highest in the region.
There were approximately 3.6 million health workers in the 47 countries surveyed as of 2018. Thirty-seven per cent are nurses and midwives, 9% are medical doctors, 10% are laboratory personnel, 14% are community health workers, 14% are other health workers, and 12% are administrative and support staff.
International migration and rapid population
WHO noted that Africa’s long-standing health worker shortage stems from several factors. These include inadequate training capacity, rapid population growth and international migration.
Other reasons are weak governance of the health workforce, career changes and poor retention of health personnel.
WHO said the shortage of health workers in Africa will reach 6.1 million by 2030, a 45% increase from 2013, the last time projections were estimated.
Commenting on the finding, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, noted that the severe shortage of health workers in Africa has daunting implications.
“Without the adequate and well-trained workforce, tackling challenges such as maternal and infant mortality, infectious diseases, non-communicable illnesses and providing essential basic services like vaccination remains an u3phill battle,” said Moeti.
Globally, the Western Pacific region—which includes Australia, China, Japan and Malaysia—had the highest number of doctors at 4.1 million, and 7.6 million nurses in 2020, according to a report on human resources for health by the WHO Director-General to the 2022 World Health Assembly showed. The European region had 3.4 million medical doctors and 7.4 million nurses. Comparatively, the African region had around 300 000 doctors and 1.2 million nurses.
To reinforce Africa’s health system, WHO observed that addressing the persistent shortages and poor distribution of the health workforce is critical.
Countries need to significantly increase investments in building the health workforce to meet their current and future needs. Strong measures are also required to boost the training and recruitment of health workers and improve their deployment and retention.
Several African countries have made progress in plugging the deficit; however, the WHO study published this week acknowledges that resolving the health workforce shortages remains challenging due to the issue’s complexity and scope.
In a related story, a new survey of more than 4,500 young people in Africa, aged 18-24, has found that 52 per cent of them are likely to consider emigrating in the next few years, citing economic hardship and education opportunities as the top reasons.
The BBC spoke to five young people in Nigeria and South Africa who said they do not feel safe in their countries and lack access to work opportunities.