Health Care Worker Shortages and Migration

According to this article from the Kaiser Network, the WHO has convened a meeting to address the global health worker shortage.  (See this previous post for more on this issue.)  About 4.3 million more health care workers are needed, mostly in developing countries.

Representatives from over 50 European governments met at the opening of the meeting to discuss their nations’ role in the shortage.  This included addressing issues of migration of health workers.  According to the article, “the migration of health workers from the countries with the worst shortages has increased substantially over the past three decades. WHO research indicates that in the world’s 30 leading industrial nations, an average of 18% of the physicians and 11% of nurses are foreign-born.”

As these numbers indicate, migration of health care workers from the developing to the developed world is a serious problem.  On the one hand, it’s easier to understand why highly-trained medical workers want to take advantage of opportunities to move to parts of the world where they could earn more and probably have a better quality of life.

On the other hand, this type of migration (often called “brain drain”) often proves disastrous to the regions where quality medical care is most lacking, and most needed.  According to the Kaiser Network article, “In 57 countries, 36 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa, serious health worker shortages are hindering treatment programs for tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/AIDS, as well as vaccination programs for children and prenatal care.”  Needless to say, this is about the last thing these 57 countries need.

Migration of health care workers can have a discernable impact even in far less desperate situations.  I spent most of my growing-up years in Canada, where many people were worried about brain drain to the United States.  Many Canadian doctors preferred to work in the U.S., where they could often earn more.  This caused enough concern between two wealthy, developed countries.  I can only imagine how much the problem would be magnified on a more global scale.

I think the following comments, quoted in the article,  describe some of the dilemmas of the global health care shortage well.

“With ageing populations and the increasing burden of disease, we know that demand for health workers will increase, meaning emigration trends are likely to persist,” former Irish President Mary Robinson, who is part of the Global Health Workforce Alliance, said. She added that it is “crucial” for European countries “to adopt an ethical approach to their health worker needs and thereby reduce the negative impacts of migration on health systems in developing countries.”

WHO spokesperson Liuba Negru said, “Health workers have the right to travel and seek a better life, but people in countries hard-hit by emigration also have the right to health.” She added, “Technical solutions must be found to balance the right to migrate with the right for all to have access to a well-functioning health system.” Negru said that countries must “know what is needed ahead in terms of training, rather than relying on immediate needs and then ‘buying up’ personnel to fill the gaps.” Meanwhile, “[s]upplier” countries “need to train enough personnel, but not to train simply for export,” Negru added (AFP/Independent Online, 6/25).

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~ by h.e.g. on June 26, 2008.

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