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Yet even as we celebrate them as heroes, we fail to keep them safe. They face a disproportionately high risk of illness and death, as well as isolation and even stigma. The cascade of burdens health care workers face during a public health crisis played out yet again during COVID-19: insufficient personal protective equipment, fatigue, hundreds of thousands of infections, harassment and stigmatization by the public as well as an uptick in mental health issues and suicides.
Up to 180,000 health care workers have died during the COVID-19 pandemic*.
*as of September 2021, WHO estimated range of 80,000-180,000
Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, and every health care worker infection represents an enormous cost to communities, health systems and economies. We worked with the World Bank to calculate that cost in four lower-income countries – capturing the impacts of health care worker sickness and death during the first year of COVID-19, including secondary infections and health service disruptions. By investing in health care worker protections, we argue that governments and funders will ultimately save money – while also fulfilling their moral obligations.
Protecting health care workers requires a range of interventions. Governments and donors across the world must prioritize:
Full implementation of Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Standards (WASH)
Investing in training, tools and resources for a safer health care workforce
Using and improving tools to monitor implementation of WHO monitoring frameworks at the national and facility levels and enact further improvements in meeting IPC standards
Improving data collection and accountability regarding health care worker infections and deaths
Increasing donor support for and focus on health care worker protections
Protecting Health Care Workers during COVID-19
When COVID-19 struck, we partnered with ministries of health and civil society organizations in 22 African countries to develop and implement an emergency response initiative to improve health care worker safety through a comprehensive program including in-service training, data collection and procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE).
…the initiative trained more than 40,000 health care workers from more than 8,000 facilities in 22 countries
Between April 2020 and January 2021, the initiative trained more than 40,000 health care workers from more than 8,000 facilities in 22 countries. As the pandemic progressed, RTSL and country partners continued work to improve infection prevention and control measures and ensure the maintenance of essential health services at the primary health care level at more than 1,800 facilities in nine countries.
A key tenet of the initiative was supportive supervision — a mentorship-based approach to management that prioritizes respect, transparency and collaboration between supervisors and supervisees and involves extensive and open communication.
Participating facilities’ average infection prevention and control scores increased from 66% to 90% as measured by the COVID-19 checklist for primary care facilities. The program also saw improvements in PPE availability and health care workers’ behaviors.
As the world emerges into a new normal following the pandemic, we are continuing to work with global partners to ensure that health care worker safety remains a priority issue in epidemic preparedness – and showing governments and funders how investing in protections makes economic sense.
Learn more about the emergency response initiative’s success, as well as how we’ve transitioned it into our core preparedness work, through stories from some of our implementing partners:
The Faces of Infection Prevention and Control
We spoke with health care workers from Liberia and Ghana about the real human impact strengthening infection prevention and control has. Learn about their challenges and successes in promoting infection prevention and control measures during the pandemic.
Preparing for the Next Pandemic by Protecting Health Care Workers
The world can’t afford to lose its health care workforce because of unsafe working conditions. Health care workers require extensive training and can’t be easily replaced. And we’re already facing a global shortage of health care workers — the World Health Organization estimates that an additional 18 million will be needed in the next decade.
Improving hand hygiene in health care settings saves about $16 in expenditures for every $1 invested.
Modest investments in health facilities and health care workers will contribute to stronger global health security and make the world safer from the next epidemic threat. For example, a recent WHO report found that improving hand hygiene in health care settings saves about $16 in expenditures for every $1 invested. That same report found that avoidable infections in health care settings were reduced by up to 70% following implementation of IPC practices. This reduction came regardless of whether a country was a high-, middle- or low-income country.
But there is still substantial work to be done. One in three health care facilities lack proper hand hygiene supplies at the point of care. A 2019 WHO survey could not identify any health facilities in low-income countries with the minimum IPC requirements in place, and found that even in high-income countries, less than 20% of tertiary health facilities met the standard. A recent survey of 106 countries found that only four met the minimum requirements for IPC.
Ensuring primary health centers are safe protects health care workers and enables them to detect and respond to public health threats before they spiral out of control.
Learn more about the impact health workers can have and find resources for health care workers and their advocates below.
Tools, trainings & resources for health care workers
We invited health care workers who completed our self-advocacy course to tell us about an issue that matters to them. Hear their voices.
Self-Advocacy for Health Workers
The course covers essential self-advocacy and storytelling skills that you can use to make the case for change on an issue that matters to you, with a focus on issues affecting HCW safety. Issues might include access to vaccines and running water, or ensuring that health facilities have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect all HCWs. The course features short videos created by the Community Health Impact Coalition and the Stanford Center for Health Education.
This self-paced course focuses on foundational concepts in infection prevention and control (IPC), with a focus on practices applicable to primary health care facilities in Africa. This training covers common questions and misconceptions and follows the latest guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Our report, Protecting Health Care Workers: A Need for Urgent Action, details the problems affecting our health care workforce and key actions that governments, health systems and funders must take to address them.
Our team’s advocacy for and work with health care workers has been featured in a range of journals and news media, including:
Development of a simple and effective online training for health workers: results from a pilot in Nigeria.
March 21, 2022. Marshall Thomas, Samantha Kozikott, Moreen Kamateeka, et al. BMC Public Health
Safer primary healthcare facilities are needed to protect healthcare workers and maintain essential services: lessons learned from a multicountry COVID-19 emergency response initiative
June 3, 2021. Leena Patel, Samantha Kozikott, Rodrigue Ilboudo On behalf of the African Primary Health Care IPC Strengthening Community of Practice, et al. BMJ Global Health
From lionizing to protecting health care workers during and after COVID-19-systems solutions for human tragedies.
March 1, 2021. Ethan Guillén, Marine Buissonnière and Christopher T. Lee. The International Journal of Health Planning and Management
Assessing and Reducing Risk to Healthcare Workers in Outbreaks
June 17, 2020. Colby Wilkason, Christopher T. Lee, Lauren M. Sauer, Jenifer Nuzzo and Amanda McClelland. Health Security
This is what we owe the world’s health and care workers, who put their lives on the line for us
October 3, 2021. Strive Masiyiwa and Tom Frieden. CNN
How we can keep health care workers safe
January 24, 2021. Tom Frieden and Amanda McClelland. CNN
Inside a pandemic, advancing Ethiopia’s healthcare
June 13, 2020. Dawit Bisrat. New Business Ethiopia