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Health Heroes + Social Good: Empowering Health Workers Worldwide

Organized by Frontline Health Workers Coalition, United Nations Foundation, and Johnson & Johnson

April 5
8:00 AM – 1:00 PM
FHI 360 Conference Center
Washington, DC


What can today’s global health and development communities do to address the 18 million health worker deficit? How can we leverage our collective passion and knowledge to solve the challenges health workers face, such as ensuring gender equity at the highest levels of global health leadership or promoting safer working environments for those in conflict and humanitarian settings?

Commemorating this year’s World Health Worker Week (April 1-7), Health Heroes +SocialGood is a debut event to facilitate thought-provoking conversations on persistent challenges and innovative solutions in the health workforce.

Through +SocialGood’s global community of over 70,000 fans, followers, and members from 140 countries, the event will convene luminaries from diverse sectors, including policy-makers, funders, implementers, frontline health workers, and changemakers to inspire the action and investment needed to transform ideas to solutions now.

How Are We Responding to the Mental Health Needs of Health Workers?

This guest blog was cross-posted from Chemonics, and written by Pauline Lee, Associate in Chemonics Health Practice

Providing health care during emergency situations can take its toll on health care workers. Addressing these workers' own health needs is important to ensuring they are able to do their jobs.

Providing health care during emergency situations can take its toll on health care workers. Addressing these workers’ own health needs is important to ensuring they are able to do their jobs.

Earthquakes, hurricanes, epidemics, outbreaks — when disaster strikes, the immediate needs like food, shelter, and medical aid are obvious. It is easy to see these needs as they often manifest in physical and more tangible ways. Yet the residual mental health effects of any crisis, be it a natural disaster, conflict, or a health outbreak like Ebola, are not always seen or obvious days, weeks, or years later. Front-line health workers, which range from community health workers to professional cadres of nurses and doctors at local community clinics, are providing immediate care for the physical and mental health needs of the community. How are we, then, responding to the mental health needs of health workers themselves?

Why is mental health care for health workers important?

In emergency or humanitarian situations, the main priorities are the community members affected. However, we need health workers to meet these priorities. Currently, there is a global health workforce shortage, which means there are not enough health workers to meet the needs of their communities. There are various factors contributing to the health worker shortage, but one of the challenges is keeping health workers at their posts (also known as “retention”). Reasons for leaving include limited career mobility, low job satisfaction, and lower wages than other posts. While the evidence base is sparse, mental health issues like burn-out and even secondary trauma (experiencing trauma from hearing firsthand about it) can contribute to retention challenges and make it even more difficult to keep health workers in their communities during a humanitarian or emergency crisis.

Shouldn’t we focus on ensuring mental health care for affected communities in crisis first?

Yes, but seeing, hearing, and treating countless trauma-based issues on a daily basis can take a mental and physical toll. Even if the issue is not the result of a humanitarian or emergency crisis, lack of access to health care services can result in preventable deaths and additional stress for those impacted. Losing a family member, experiencing intimate partner violence, or witnessing violence — these are all issues that health workers can face in their communities. During a humanitarian crisis, what you then see is protracted mental health stress in the communities and, subsequently, for health workers treating community members .Advocacy efforts, such as MSF’s Not A Target campaign and the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, highlight the challenges medical providers face working in conflict zones where they are not only defending the safety of their patients but also that of the health facilities and their own cadres in affected communities. While it is important to focus on expanding mental health care services in general, making sure there are systems in place to respond and enough health workers to provide the mental health services needed, we also need to highlight the mental health needs of health workers to ensure that they are supported throughout a crisis to provide essential services.

What is being done about mental health care for health workers?

Support for mental health care is increasing, though it is not necessarily directed all at health workers. Earlier this month, mental health practitioners and organizations worldwide, including the World Health Organization (WHO), observed World Mental Health Day, an annual day that focuses on advocacy, education, and awareness for mental health care. This year’s focus was on “psychological first aid,” which advocates for providing the appropriate training and framework for first responders, including front-line health workers, to respond to communities in crisis. While psychological first aid does not replace a mental health care provider or other mental health and social services, it does provide a framework through which responders can better understand, assess, and respond to immediate needs of an individual during a crisis. Think of it as front-line triaging for community members and facilitating treatment early for health workers down the line.

Also this month, the theme for CORE Group’s Fall Global Health Practitioners Conference was “Community Health Transitions: Leading for Impact,” with mental health and emergency response as one of the tracks. One of the sessions highlighted the revised and recently launched mhGAP (Mental Health Gap Action Program) Intervention Guide by the WHO. This guide, which was last updated in 2010, not only provides more recent tools, guidelines, and evidence-based materials, but also a more community health worker-focused approach to the care for mental, neurological, and substance-use disorders. While the focus of the conference was less on mental health care for health workers, mental health still played an important role with packed discussions on mental health care in humanitarian contexts, as well as integration into HIV, MCH, and nutrition care services.

By expanding resources and advocacy for mental health, we are making strides toward responding to the needs of health workers. What we need next are more platforms and opportunities to discuss mental health through the lens of front-line health workers. As we develop programs and implement activities, we need to ask again and again:

How are we responding to the mental health needs of health workers?


USAID panel emphasizes importance of strong health systems in supporting healthy families

This blog post was written by Alissa Dresie, Global Health Council Intern

On January 21, The Maternal and Child Survival Program (MCSP), a USAID program focused on strengthening  health systems and ending preventable child and maternal deaths within a generation, hosted Strong Health Systems Support Healthy Families, a half day event. The event looked at how investing in strong health systems is crucial in ending preventable maternal, newborn and child deaths.

MCSP advocates that maternal and child deaths are a strong sign that the health system within a country is failing. They have hopes that the White House approved vision – The U.S. Global Policy and Agenda 2030 – will bridge the gap between demand for care and its effective implementation and lead to a new generation of health leaders.

When the Ebola crisis started making headlines globally, it brought attention to global health and the weak health systems within these West African countries. The outbreak showed the necessity for strong health systems and helped to open a discourse on the topic. It showed what could and should be done in the future for building and maintaining strong health systems and the universal importance of having these strong health systems not only within individual countries, but also in a global context.

With government support, Management Sciences for Health (MSH) has built strong health systems through a series of projects. Panelist, Dr. Zipporah Kpamor, the Nigeria Country Representative for MSH, pointed to the success that Nigeria has had in combating HIV/AIDS in recent years. Transmission rates between mother and child declined and the progress in combating and educating people about HIV/AIDS has extended into more effective maternal care. Additionally, Nigerian health workers were able to take the knowledge gained from their history with polio eradication and use it in combating the recent Ebola outbreak. The existing systems and history used in eradicating polio were crucial when applied to the control of the Ebola epidemic. Dr. Kpamor stated that, “When talking about sustainability we have to strengthen capacity” and outlined what building strong health systems requires. Strong health systems require large initial investments, but these investments often have unpredicted benefits as seen in both HIV/AIDS care and treatment, improving maternal care, and the eradication of smallpox assisting in controlling the Ebola outbreak.

Damtew Woldemariam Dagoye, with the Ethiopia Strengthening Human Resources for Health (HRH) Project at Jhpiego, spoke to the very different health systems in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is still in the process of modernizing both their educational and health systems. Currently, efforts are being made to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by expanding health facilities and training a new generation of health workers. Ethiopia is still very behind on achieving recommended health worker density – the World Health Organization recommends that a country have 32 health workers for every 10,000 people – Ethiopia currently has only seven health workers per every 10,000. Ethiopia is in its fourth phase of the Health Sector Development Plan, which sets out to improve awareness about personal and environmental hygiene and basic knowledge of common diseases and their causes, as well as promote political and community support for health systems.

A large barrier in achieving global health goals is that fundamental health systems lack the necessary attention. This was helped by the Ebola outbreak which brought attention to failing health systems, but people still tend to focus on health fads rather than the fundamental requirements of the health system. Robert Clay, Vice President of Global Health with Save the Children US, emphasized that people have a cyclical attention span and the real challenge is maintaining attention and investment. Clay echoed Dr. Kpamor’s sentiment that health systems can be the gift that keeps on giving, creating long term positive outcomes.

All three panelists agreed that the future of global health is one that needs to include finance plans so governments can better understand the real cost of building and maintaining strong health systems. There also needs to be a shift to a culture that is more evidence-based. The message communicated by all the panelists is that there needs to more communication within countries and between countries that reiterates that investing in health will lead to stronger economies and the support for health systems needs to come from domestic resources. Fundamentally, there needs to not only be sustainability in the health systems themselves, but in the interest merited by health issues and health systems so that sustainable achievements can be met.