In 2013, sub-Saharan Africa had a deficit of an estimated 1.8 million health workers, according to a WHO report—this deficit is projected to rise to 4.3 million by 2035. There are a number of reasons for the shortfall, including a lack of funding for education and training, international migration and career changes among health workers, illness, premature retirement, and even premature deaths.
But one reason is particularly glaring: The inadequacy of the region’s current healthcare education system. Currently, there are only 170 medical schools serving the 47 countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Of those countries, 6 have no medical schools, and 20 have only one medical school.
Beyond the shortage of available health workers there is also a problem of access, with significant disparities between urban and rural areas. At the top, a small minority receives care that rivals that of higher income countries, and a somewhat larger minority of urban dwellers enjoys access to hospital care. But because the majority of rural communities lack both health workers and infrastructure, many patients bypass essential primary or preventative care. If they’re able to pay for it, rural residents may attempt access care at hospitals. But without a comprehensive primary care infrastructure, many must rely on local chemists or traditional healers.
Even where health workers are available, facilities can be short-staffed, with poor continuing-education training and few opportunities for professional development. “The workload is too much. We have many patients and staff is not enough. The equipment is not adequate. There are no materials to work with,” says one midwife in a functional primary care facility in Nigeria. She went on “These make us want to transfer to a hospital where they have more staff.”
But the same problems affect hospitals in urban areas. According to Dr. Remi Oyedeji, a specialist working in a Nigerian hospital: “The poor state of the primary care centers puts a heavy burden on the specialist facilities.” He added, “The bulk of patients are seen at specialist hospitals, which leaves patients who really need specialist attention without the timely care they need.”
Clearly, revamping these systems so they might sufficiently cover the growing demands of universal primary care, a goal of many countries in the region, is a tall order. Improving the quality of health care will not only require efforts to improve the overall number of health workers, but also strategic action dedicated to improving distribution channels, infrastructure, and bolstering continuing-education.
These challenges are now receiving more attention, with plans to improve the governance and education of human resources for health organizations at national and sub-regional levels. As part of that effort, in February 2015 General Electric was selected by the Kenyan government to serve as a key technology partner in the massive healthcare transformation for Kenya and East Africa. GE plans to launch the new Kenyan GE Healthcare Skills and Training Institute, which will offer biomedical and clinical applications training courses and, at a later date, leadership, technical and clinical education courses. It expects to train over 1,000 healthcare professionals over the next 3 years.
“By increasing access to preventative screenings, we aim to aid doctors in better detecting, diagnosing and treating non-communicable diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, at an early stage,” said Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, James Macharia. He went on, “This has the potential to significantly reduce costs associated with late-stage diagnosis and also improve patient outcomes, enabling citizens to live fuller and healthier lives.”
The Skills Institute is part of a broader three year, $100M investment in healthcare education by GE in the Eastern and African Growth Markets region. The project is aimed at supporting knowledge-sharing and capacity-building across East Africa, and will progress from an initial focus on skills and training, to leadership and technical development courses.
Large-scale public-private partnerships like these represent the kind of ongoing commitment to healthcare needed to help reduce the sub-Saharan’s worker shortage. Ultimately, they are driving a burgeoning systemic transformation that will go far in helping reduce the health worker skills gap, improve overall job prospects and build both a sustainable national healthcare system and private healthcare sector.
This article was produced on behalf of GE by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.