Thank a Health Worker—Unsung Heroes of Global Health

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

When was the last time you thanked your health care provider? We often forget how much care, guidance, and support they give, and the sacrifices they make to restore us to good health. Health workers—whether a doctor, nurse, midwife, or physician’s assistant—are an integral part of a well-functioning health system and necessary for the delivery of quality health care not only in the United States, but all around the world. As the world comes together to celebrate World Health Worker Week, we are reminded of the critical role health workers play both in the developed world as well as some of the poorest countries plagued with an unimaginable shortage of health services and limited access to care.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 1 billion people have little to no access to health workers. This is due to a global shortage of skilled, motivated, and supported health workers. The entire continent of Africa has only 4 percent of the world’s health workforce, yet shares 25 percent of the world’s disease burden. Shortages are coupled with severe imbalances in geographic distribution of health workers. Skilled health workers are disproportionately located in urban centers and wealthier regions of countries, limiting access to quality health care for millions of people who live in rural and poor areas worldwide. This 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, two major global health priorities at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Human Resources for Health (HRH), considered a core building block of a health system and defined by the WHO as “all people engaged in actions whose primary intent is to enhance health,” is a relative newcomer to the field of global health and development. The health worker challenges that countries have faced and continue to face today were first recognized and brought to light by the 2004 Joint Learning Initiative for Human Resources for Health. Commitment of countries to address health worker challenges has been paramount to countries’ ability to make progress in improving the availability, accessibility, and quality of their health workers over the past decade. In 2013, country governments and other stakeholders and partners gathered at the 3rd Global HRH Forum in Recife, Brazil to announce a new and re-energized commitment to HRH that is critical as we move into the post-Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Universal Health Coverage (UHC) agendas. Working with WHO and the Global Health Workforce Alliance (GHWA), USAID is co-leading a consultation to help drive forward a re-energized agenda for HRH that builds upon dialogue in Recife.

USAID’s leadership in the field of HRH advances our goals by building foundational components for a health system. Our work in HRH builds on a history of investing in the education and training of a wide range of health care professionals since the mid-1980s. Our work has continually evolved and is focused on expanding evidence for the impact of comprehensive investments in HRH systems and developing innovative approaches for addressing challenges in health worker deployment, retention, and management that are helping countries build health systems that are able to sustain and advance improvements made in health. In Ethiopia, USAID is working with their government to implement the National Human Resource Strategic Plan, which aims to improve the quality of health workforce education and training, and strengthen management capacity to increase retention and productivity of health professionals.

By collaborating with U.S. Government sister agencies and engaging in public-private partnerships, USAID strives to ensure our collective U.S. Government support in HRH is well-coordinated and producing the best value for our investment. For example, the Saving Mothers, Giving Life program, a public-private partnership between the U.S. Government, the Governments of Norway, Uganda, and Zambia; Merck for Mothers; Every Mother Counts; Project CURE; and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, makes training health professionals in emergency obstetric and newborn care a core objective of the program. In FY13 alone, Saving Mothers trained 147 new doctors, nurses, and midwives in Uganda, and 199 providers in Zambia.

As we look ahead, USAID wants to make sure we continue to recognize those health workers who go above and beyond each day. In 2013, Save the Children and the Frontline Health Workers Coalition created The REAL Awards, a first-of-its-kind annual global awards program designed to develop greater respect and appreciation for the lifesaving care that health workers provide in the U.S. and around the world. The 2014 honorees are receiving their awards in a series of ceremonies held in Washington, D.C., and abroad this week.

These honorees are just a snapshot of the many dedicated professionals who provide health. There are countless other health workers who have made an enormous impact in both the lives of individuals and communities on a daily basis. Continued investment in strengthening and supporting these workers and generations of new workers is integral to advancing our health agenda across the globe. As part of this effort, we must support the development of a cadre of HRH leaders who can be effective stewards of HRH and who are integral in driving effective HRH strategy development and implementation that impacts the delivery of quality care. By developing the leaders of tomorrow, we can work on strengthening health systems and carry the health workforce agenda forward.

So please, if you have an encounter with a healthcare provider this week, remember to thank them for the work they do.

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