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Health workers have been the heroic agents of care during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, delivering outstanding care to patients, despite their calamitous influx. Globally, countries faced perilous health worker shortages and the World Health Organisation recently estimated that the global health workforce shortage is forecasted to reach 10 million by the year 2030.

The pandemic has spurred an exodus of health workers due to the grim working conditions endured by them, with many experiencing fatigue, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, and depression. These strenuous working conditions were further aggravated by infection risks to vulnerable family members, especially dependents such as children and the elderly. More dramatically, many health workers have contracted long Covid, which impaired their ability to perform daily functions.

If anything, the pandemic has stressed the importance of securing local health care capacities to ensure a critical minimum workforce that is available to handle emergencies or outbreaks. That said, it is important for governments to spearhead an ambitious strategy to support health workers to ensure a sufficient supply which are qualified, protected, and have working conditions that enable them to thrive.

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To begin with, health departments need to establish a critical mass of health workers that are needed according to current and forecasted population sizes, demographic compositions, health service needs, and epidemiological trends. Subsequently, policymakers must assess and balance the need for various specialisations, qualifications, and geographical coverages in order to deliver an optimal level of service to patients.

In tandem, an exhaustive understanding of current causes of health worker shortages will illuminate some practical solutions for policymakers to pursue in order to remedy these subsets. These could include any number of issues, such as low levels of graduates pursuing health care professions, education gaps, low hiring and retention rates, low compensation packages, limited career progression, difficult working conditions, or high incidents of occupational hazards.

That said, a rigorous recruitment campaign must be deployed to attract students into the health care profession. Investing in local universities and training institutes and offering scholarships or flexible financing solutions for medical students is pivotal.

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Launching medical internship programs for high school students will expose them to the inner workings of medical careers, working alongside health workers in hospital and clinic settings. To illustrate, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center runs the High School Senior Summer Internship Program, where high school seniors can work with a mentor in one of nine paediatric clinic specialities for a total of eight weeks.

Meanwhile, media outlets should spread persuasive messages, via in-depth interviews or documentaries, about the health workforce and their noble missions in saving people’s lives and empowering them to live in good health. Furthermore, governments would have to ensure the continuous upskilling of health workers throughout their careers to maintain stellar standards in health care.

As the world faces more complex and urgent health challenges, governments would need to invest in a wide spectrum of talents that will bolster the delivery of quality health services.

To illustrate, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for a multifunctional team of epidemiologists, big data specialists, health technology developers, infectious disease experts, and crisis and emergency management personnel in order to manage and deliver the necessary services to populations. When it comes to community outreach programs that aim to create awareness and promote favourable health behaviours, facilities will also benefit from the expertise of public health educators, social workers, and behavioural health professionals.

Retaining competent health workers for the long-term will necessitate improving overall working conditions. Firstly, initiatives that promote work-life balance will ensure the motivation and well-being of health workers is elevated for optimal performance.

Delegating manageable workloads

An immediate practical solution would be to support health workers with childcare, in the form of covering costs or offering nearby facilities where parents can rely on. Other solutions include shifting towards telehealth services for non-urgent care services, implementing flexible working hours, and delegating manageable workloads.

Protection of health workers should also be considered of utmost importance, covering occupational safety and mental well-being. Drafting well-articulated standards on occupational safety is pivotal in outlining potential occupational risks, detection and treatment procedures, and immunisation requirements against vaccine-preventable diseases.

Health leaders should also consider integrating mental health programs as part of the support system for health workers.

Considering the enormous pressures that health workers have to manage to perform their jobs optimally, it is important to launch initiatives, such as establishing mental health helplines supported by trained professionals, on-site awareness programs, or remote counselling sessions on effective ways to reduce stress, promote self-care, and improve personal resilience.

During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries introduced a suite of financial assistance packages to alleviate the pressures on health workers. This included special allowances to cover rents, scholarships, childcare costs, public transportation, and work-related injuries.

On top of that, numerous governments have also rewarded health workers with bonuses or salary increases during the duration of the crisis.

For example, the UAE launched the ‘Hayyakum’ initiative that aimed to give generous scholarships to children of front line health workers to attend public schools in the UAE until their graduation from high school, covering tuition, laptop, and transportation costs.

Nations have a commitment towards providing competent, compassionate, and timely health care services for their populations as part of an overarching well-being framework. This can only be achieved by supporting, protecting, and empowering their health workers as critical agents out to deliver their noble goals.

Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and literature