Technical assistance

Shortage of healthcare workers is a ‘ticking time bomb’ – even in Europe

WHO Europe Panel on Health Workforce Shortages 2022

TEL AVIV — Aging doctors and overworked staff are just two of the consequences of the severe shortage of health care workers, even in the relatively wealthy World Health Organization (WHO) region of Europe.

“In one out of three countries in the region, more than 40% of doctors are over 55,” said Tomas Zapata, Head of Unit for Health Workforce and Service Delivery at WHO Europe, during the meeting. the WHO Europe regional committee meeting, which took place in Tel Aviv, Israel this week.

“This means that in these countries, more than 40% of doctors will retire in the next 10 years. It’s a crisis. It’s a ticking time bomb. If we don’t act now, we will have huge shortages in 10 years on top of the ones we have now,” added Zapata, the author of a report on the issue that was launched at the meeting.

The toll of COVID-19 on health workers

Some 50,000 healthcare workers in Europe have died from COVID-19, and healthcare worker absences in the European Region increased by 62% during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, according to the WHO.

The pandemic has also had a serious impact on the mental health of workers. In some countries, more than 80% of nurses reported some form of psychological distress caused by the pandemic and up to 9 in 10 nurses planned to leave their jobs.

“I often work shifts without even being able to go to the toilet, without breaks or time to eat,” German midwife Annika Schröder told a panel for health workers in the European Region. “The doorbell and phones are ringing as we rush from room to room. On average, I look after two women in labor at a time.

“This is not how I imagined my job or my daily professional life. I am often exhausted and tired. The shortage of midwives makes childbirth dangerous. And since the pandemic, things have gotten even worse.

Great disparities between Member States

The European region in general can boast of a high number of health workers. Data shows that the region has 80 nurses, 37 doctors, 8 physiotherapists, 6.9 pharmacists, 6.7 dentists and 4.1 midwives per 10,000 people.

However, huge gaps remain between countries. The density of doctors, nurses and midwives relative to population ranges from 54.3 per 10,000 people in Turkey to over 200 per 10,000 people in Iceland, Norway, Monaco and Switzerland.

As Zapata pointed out, the report also offers several action points, including aligning education with health service needs, improving health information systems, and digitizing services and raising awareness of the needs of health systems in governments.

“We also need to improve the working conditions of health personnel and that is also linked to the next point, which is to protect their health and well-being,” he said. “A big lesson we’ve learned from the COVID pandemic is how we can really push to improve the health and well-being of our health workers.”

Regional and national needs

People from various countries shared their experiences on how to tackle health workforce challenges.

In Georgia, for example, more than 85% of health care providers are currently employed in the private sector, said Tamar Gabunia, deputy minister.

“Many factors have brought us to where we are today, including commercial interests and market factors driven by human resource developments,” she noted.

“Now it is time to change the situation. Our government is very keen on achieving universal health coverage and we all know that health systems cannot function without human resources,” she said, pointing out that they have worked hard to address issues related to recruitment and retention of health personnel.

In Romania, there are 700 towns and villages without doctors, said Professor Alexandru Rafila, Bucharest’s health minister.

“When we discuss inequality, we are not just talking about inequality between countries but also within countries,” he said. “I think the involvement of local authorities is crucial in addressing some of these issues.”

He said that Romania is preparing to launch a new strategic approach: “WHO/Europe will provide us with the necessary technical assistance for the development of human resources in the health sector and we are happy to be part of this process and to host a special meeting on the subject in March 2023.”

More WHO support

When COVID-19 hit Israel in early spring 2020, its healthcare system, like the rest of the world, was under strain.

“We had several new challenges,” recalled Dr. Shoshy Goldberg, head of nursing administration at Israel’s Health Ministry. “We didn’t know anything about the disease at the beginning and we had been short of manpower in all trades in the system for more than 10 years.

Goldberg explained that Israel’s Health Ministry was able to hire new staff and train thousands of people in a short time.

According to Dr Natasha Azzopardi-Muscat, WHO Country Health Policy and Systems Director for Europe, the report highlights the enormous diversity between different countries in the region and the need to work with each nation. to find solutions adapted to their context.

“It’s not a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” she said. “But with the support of the regional director, we will also increase our capacity to support countries in this area.”

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