Study: One health worker serves 1,000 persons in Africa

health workers shortage, doctors shortage, medics shaortage

A 2017 WHO report indicated that Kenya was one of the African nations facing a severe health workforce crisis. 

Photo credit: SHUTTERSTOCK

What you need to know:

  • According to the study, Africa’s long-standing health worker shortage stems from several factors including inadequate training capacity, rapid population growth, international migration, weak governance of the health workforce, career changes as well as poor retention of health personnel.
  • It is projected that the shortage of health workers in Africa will reach 6.1 million by 2030, a 45 per cent increase from 2013, the last time the projections were estimated.

A new World Health Organization (WHO) study has shown that Africa has a serious shortage of health workers.

The study titled “The health workforce status in the WHO African Region: Findings of a cross-sectional study” and published last week in the British Medical Journal Global Health surveyed 47 African countries. It indicated that the region has a ratio of 1.55 health workers (physicians, nurses and midwives) per 1,000 people.

This is below the WHO threshold density of 4.45 health workers per 1,000 people needed to deliver essential health services and achieve universal health coverage.

Only four countries (Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles and South Africa) have surpassed the WHO health worker-to-population ratio.

According to the findings, the region’s health workforce is also unevenly distributed by country, ranging from 0.25 health workers per 1,000 people in Niger (the region’s lowest) to 9.15 health workers per 1,000 people in the 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 of them are nurses and midwives,  nine per cent are medical doctors, 10 per cent laboratory personnel, 14 per cent community health workers, 14 per cent other health workers, and 12 per cent are administrative and support staff.

Kenya is one of the countries bearing the biggest brunt. A 2017 WHO report indicated that Kenya was one of the African nations facing a severe health workforce crisis. Then, Health Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki said Kenya had a shortage of 42,800 workers.

At that time, Kenya had 63,000 health personnel. Of these, 21,000 were nurses, 3,200 clinical officers, 2,285 doctors and 1,100 pharmacists. This translated to one doctor for 7,200 people, one clinical officer for 21,000 and one nurse for every 1,600.

According to the study, Africa’s long-standing health worker shortage stems from several factors including inadequate training capacity, rapid population growth, international migration, weak governance of the health workforce, career changes as well as poor retention of health personnel. It is projected that the shortage of health workers in Africa will reach 6.1 million by 2030, a 45 per cent increase from 2013, the last time the projections were estimated.

“The severe shortage of health workers in Africa has daunting implications. Without 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 uphill battle,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

A report on human resource for health by WHO to the 2022 World Health Assembly showed that 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. The European region had 3.4 million doctors and 7.4 million nurses. Comparatively, the African region had around 300,000 doctors and 1.2 million nurses.

Several African countries have made progress to plug the deficit. However, the WHO study acknowledges that resolving the health workforce shortages remains difficult due to the complexity and the scope of the issue.

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