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The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a problem that was already growing in urgency: the health workforce in many countries is in a state of crisis.
Structural problems mean that the medical workforce was in some cases already facing excessive hours and untenable working conditions, even before being in the midst of a pandemic. As more data become available on the backlog of treatments, it becomes increasingly clear that it will take years to tackle this unmet need, during which patients will sadly not receive timely and adequate treatment.
The pandemic showed that upscaling capacities may not be restricted by funding or availability of equipment, but rather by the shortage of health professionals. The biggest challenge we may be facing is that medicine is losing its attractiveness as a life-long professional calling.
It is therefore necessary to plan for and train a health workforce to sufficient levels to enable safe patient care without lowering standards of training.
This becomes particularly relevant in medically underserved urban areas, as well as rural locations or other regions negatively affected by geographic imbalances in the distribution of healthcare professionals. Effective planning policies must be implemented to avoid these shortages exacerbating existing inequalities.
Improve data on health system capacities
European doctors support intentional health workforce planning that must always be guided by the aim of improving quality of care, patient safety, and access to health in all action.
However, health workforce planning is complex and improved data is vital to tackling these problems. One important contributor is the existing co-operation between the OECD, the European Commission and WHO-Europe to collect health systems data, in particular on the health workforce.
Recommendations on minimum capacities should support national authorities
Building on the improved data collection, we propose to use health system data to provide benchmarks for minimum workforce capacities. This means determining safe staffing levels for high quality patient care, both to achieve baseline universal health coverage and for emergencies.
Better data and planning are only two of many actions needed to support the health workforce, with improvements in working conditions, practice environments and professionals’ well-being being just as important to recruitment and retention.
National contexts must of course be taken into account, but we believe that such benchmarks can help ministries identify and implement necessary investments, in particular when there is European funding or technical support for building resilient health systems.
Political will is needed to implement policy recommendations
To achieve this, we need high-level political awareness and support to make the necessary investments and changes. The OECD can provide a helpful platform for discussion and data intelligence. Past projects on health workforce planning at European level have shown the benefits of knowledge exchange on this topic, however there is a lack of continuity in and management of the co-operation.
Read more on the Forum Network: Entering the Age of Pandemics: We need to invest in pandemic preparedness even while COVID-19 continues by Peter Piot
Infectious disease outbreaks are part of the human condition and our future well-being and livelihoods depend on our collective ability to address these threats. But to do so, we need to prepare ourselves and get ready now, explains the world renowned virologist Peter Piot.
We therefore propose the creation of a European monitoring service on the health workforce. It would assist Member States in setting up and maintaining planning structures as well as co-ordinating the cross-border aspects of planning to provide useful, long-term infrastructure.
While the EU and national governments have taken steps towards improving pandemic preparedness and management, we do not see any effective action to tackle the underlying fragilities of health systems. Better data and planning are only two of many actions needed to support the health workforce, with improvements in working conditions, practice environments and professionals’ well-being being just as important to recruitment and retention.
While better data is central to our long-term efforts, let us not delay action to find perfect data. The trend is clear, and action is needed now to plan for the health workforce of the future!
For more information, read our policy on the health workforce.