G7 Leaders Can Help Close the Global Healthcare Workforce Gap

The chances are the pair of hands that helped you into this world and the ones that will help you leave it belong to people you will never know. That is if you were lucky enough to be born where access to healthcare providers is readily available. Around the world, wealthy and developing countries alike struggle to retain enough health care providers to ensure access to health care. Given our willingness to so readily entrust our lives to their hands, how is it possible that we take healthcare workers so much for granted?

Recent decades have brought enormous strides in battling global public health threats, so much so that ending AIDS, TB and malaria by 2030 is a credible prospect. It is also within reach to eradicate at least seven Neglected Tropical Diseases by 2020. With all of this good news, it's easy to forget that none of this would be possible without the healthcare workers who labor on the frontlines.

That is until Ebola-like outbreaks and now the Zika virus, yank us back to the reality of the perilous consequences of putting off strengthening health systems. Weak health systems are characterized by insufficient numbers of trained, properly equipped and protected personnel. Public health emergencies like those mentioned were on the minds of the Foreign Ministers of the G7's member countries last April when they met to prepare for the Ise-Shima Summit later this month.

There are good reasons for the Minister's concern. As World Bank President Jim Kim warned in Huffington Post, "We cannot afford to put off action any longer...in the next 30 years, we are likely to face a pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu, which could kill as many as 30 million people in 250 days -- and reduce global GDP by nearly five percent, or close to $4 trillion."

Recognizing the enormous human and economic toll inflicted by infectious disease, the Minister's Communiqué reaffirmed the G7's role in promoting global action to put in place "sustainable and resilient health systems" and to achieve the health-related Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, including universal health coverage (UHC.) In recent years the global health priorities spelled out by the Foreign Ministers are the ones the adopted by the G7 leaders. Unfortunately, healthcare workers didn't make the Minister's priority list.

There is a worldwide shortage of 10.3 million of the health workers needed to provide universal access including significant regional gaps in Asia (7.1 million) and Africa (2.8 million) according to estimates by International Labor Organization (ILO) experts. They also found understaffing in 97 countries with substantially higher gaps in rural than in urban areas. Predictably, low-income countries were the most affected where the lack of skilled health workers denies 84 percent of the population access to health care. The World Health Organization (WHO) projects the shortage of health workers to grow to 18 million by 2030--the same year as the SDGs deadline--rendering reaching SDG 3 inconceivable unless the trend is reversed.

That is why the work of the new High‐Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth is so important. It is also why the policy recommendations of civil society groups lobbying the G7 like the G7/G20 Advocacy Alliance, led by the U.S. NGO umbrella InterAction, are asking the G7 to support the Commission's work.

UN Secretary‐General Ban Ki-moon appointed South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, France's President François Hollande as Commission co-chairs in March. They are assisted by vice-chairs WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, Ángel Gurría, Secretary-General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and supported by a diverse group of advisors. The Commission's mandate is to present innovative recommendations for governments, relevant multilateral organizations and all others with a vested interest in the health sector to take action to promote global, inclusive economic growth, the creation of decent jobs, and to ensure healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages.

When the Commission wraps up its work later this fall, it is sure to conclude that boosting funding to strengthen the health systems, especially the global health workforce, is a top global priority. No amount of willful ignorance, wishful thinking, or pretending otherwise can obscure the urgency of these investments nor the importance of the policy reforms needed to stop taking health care workers for granted. Is it too much to ask to provide the people who hold our lives in their hands a living wage, respect for their worker rights, protection from workplace violence and communicable diseases, access to ongoing education and training, and good working conditions?

G7 Leaders can and should lend their strong support for the Commission's work and even more importantly, to follow-up by providing the leadership, financial support, and political will to implement the Commission's recommendations. Addressing the global health care worker shortage is one of the most important steps the G7 can take immediately to improve future epidemic preparedness.

Japan has championed a comprehensive approach to health system strengthening since it led the charge in 2008. There is no denying health care workers are the backbone of sustainable, resilient health systems or that the success or failure of the G7's global health commitments will ultimately rest in their hands.

With global pandemics like HIV, TB and Malaria yet to be vanquished, preventable NTDs causing untold lifetimes of suffering, our world rocked by outbreaks of Ebola and the Zika virus and the near certainty of new global health threats, how can we possibly afford to continue to take health care workers for granted? The answer is we can't.