Health workforce shortages across the globe are not new, the system was in crisis before the pandemic and will be for some time to come and there are no quick fixes to address the exacerbated nature of the challenge we face today. Large urban centres used to fare better, but you didn’t have to drive too far outside the city to find billboards advertising the benefits of small town living to any doctor, nurse or healthcare professional willing to make the move. The pandemic has squeezed the fragile global health workforce so dramatically that the system is near collapse everywhere you look. In other words, this is not a new problem but the pandemic just made everything that much worse.
Like in any crisis, innovation and collaboration were required to get us through the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic – breweries made hand sanitizer, universities 3D-printed face shields and medical appointments moved online. New solutions were needed because we were facing new challenges. There is much to be learned from the success and failures of the global health community’s early responses – a lot of which we should keep doing, growing and expanding.
However, it is equally important to recognize that existing healthcare challenges, despite tested, clear and obvious solutions, simply got worse during this time. To address these challenges, we need to be doing more of what we already know works. The plain language approach of our member Partners in Health Canada describes it best – a functioning healthcare system needs staff, stuff, space, systems and social support.
People are the heart of healthcare systems and I don’t mean the pretty red heart emoji, I mean the complex multifaceted organ that beats inside of our bodies. The majority of this healthcare workforce are women who are mostly underpaid and undervalued. To create strong resilient healthcare systems, we need to start by paying the health workforce – the full complex web of people that make us well – from community healthcare workers to those who keep our clinics and hospitals clean. These individuals are the frontline of defense when we are faced with new and unprecedented threats to our healthcare systems – and they deserve a fair living wage.
The roadblock to creating strong resilient healthcare systems is not a lack of know-how. The barrier is political will – the will to move resources and supplies into the right hands and clinics that keep people well. This has been repeated many times over the years, but we now face unprecedented need for health resources due to setbacks caused by COVID-19, due to the climate crisis and due to war and conflict raging on every continent. It is time we work here at home and around the world towards a stable, peaceful, healthy and thriving planet.
As I reflect on the International Cooperation Futures Festival that was held in Ottawa this week, I have been challenged to imagine the pathway to a future that includes a properly funded, fully staffed and resourced global healthcare system that serves everyone. We know what we want, we know what works but how do we rally a world population fatigued by the never ending string of crises to turn our vision into reality? I don’t know the answer to this question but I do know that it felt right to be sitting in a room with the leaders, trailblazers and champions who will figure it out together.