Best Investment for a Healthier World


Champion Women to Address the Health Workforce’s Leaky Pipeline

By Vanessa Kerry, Seed Global Health

Humanitarian emergencies caused by infectious disease, conflict, and natural disasters have caused shock after shock to health systems worldwide. The headlines are still fresh in our minds. Ebola. Zika. The Syrian refugee crisis. The list is hundreds long, unfortunately. And each time a crisis hits, it underscores the same lesson: the only way health systems can effectively withstand shocks and deliver consistent, high-quality care to all members of the community during – and critically after crisis when deaths are actually highest – is to have a strong, highly trained global health workforce.

This week, the community of organizations and leaders focused on health systems came together in Dublin for the Fourth Forum on Human Resources for Health, to advance the landmark recommendations from the Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health: Workforce 2030 and the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth (ComHEEG). With a shared objective to further define the roadmap required to build the global health workforce, the plan for policy, financing, and action is on the agenda for the future of our health workforce.

Central to these discussions must be recognition of the power and impact of female health workers – and a meaningful effort to champion them. Currently, there is global shortage of at least 14 million health workers, a gap that without concerted action grow to more than 18 million by 2030 unless urgent action is taken. Women make up about 70% of our current global health workforce, and can help effectively and impactfully fill this gap if we make the right investments. We must confront the health workforce’s leaking pipeline and champion, train, and support all health workers, but especially the women.

Women health workers face unique challenges. Women are often disenfranchised during training. And even though the profession is majority female, women have a harder time establishing credibility with peers – especially male peers – and often with their own patients. Female-dominated professions such as nursing are also subordinate in the health hierarchy. But even in these scenarios, women health workers push past the credibility gap, working tirelessly to deliver the best possible care. And they persevere as, for example, is medical intern Lillian Alphonce Mbuni. In Tanzania, where she is based, only one-third of the physicians are reported to be women. Lillian is defying tradition to show that with the right training and support, anyone can be a doctor.     

At Seed Global Health, our vision is a future in which every country has a robust health workforce able to meet the health needs of its population. And that means recognizing the unique barriers women face, and prioritizing education, training and leadership development for all health workers, regardless of gender.

By providing women with opportunities for training, advancement, and leadership, we can transform the landscape of equity in global health. Together, we can ensure the female innovators and leaders who form the backbone of our global health workforce aren’t leaving the field. In fact, ComHEEG reports that investing 2% of GDP in education and health services could increase overall employment by 2.4-6.1%, with women projected to gain 59-70% of new jobs from this investment.

Since Seed Global Health launched, 186 volunteer clinical educators and faculty have been placed in 27 institutions across five countries, teaching more than 13,000 students through nearly 230,000 instruction and service hours. Teaching and training transforms critical thinking – which in turn saves lives. And with the right support, health workers are more likely to stay in the countries rather than leave after they have trained. Our goal is to change the way care is given so people know that they can survive, and thrive.

Capacity-building is not a quick fix, but we believe that the road to the health workforce of our future and to closing the gap in standards of care globally begins with meaningful, long-term investments in teaching, training, and retaining the health workers we have now. On the front lines of health in low-resource settings, these true health champions are essential to community wellness, security, and prosperity for generations to come.