When the Ebola crisis eventually begins to diminish, and the journalists and camera crews withdraw, public interest fades and political pressure on leaders subsides, the people of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea will be left to rebuild their lives, their communities and their countries. Understanding the problems that led to the escalation of the Ebola crisis is essential in order for these countries to emerge safely from it and to prevent another crisis in the future.
The ability of a country to contain an outbreak of an infectious disease like Ebola is largely dependent on the strength of its healthcare system and on having enough staff working within it to cope with the crisis. Clearly the healthcare systems in the affected countries were too weak to control the outbreak. For example, Sierra Leone had 119 doctors serving a population of nearly six million people. This meant that for every 50,000 people in Sierra Leone, there was one doctor compared to a 100 in the UK. That ratio in Sierra Leone falls well below the WHO’s recommended minimum of at least 23 doctors, nurses and midwives per 10,000 of the population.
In Liberia and Guinea, the shortage of healthcare workers is even worse. In these countries, there is only one doctor for every 100,000 people. In addition to the severe shortage of health workers, there are also problems in terms of the number of health facilities accessible to citizens and insufficient medical supplies. For example, in Liberia, there are only 3,352 hospital beds for a population of nearly 4.5 million. Guinea has a similar number of beds (3,435) for a population of nearly 11.5 million. It is hardly surprising then that these countries have struggled to contain the Ebola virus.
Inequality and the rich country drain on health workers
The health worker shortage in Africa is a stark example of global inequality. According to WHO research, Africa has the highest burden of disease of any continent, but has only 3% of the world’s health workers, and less than 1% of the world’s financial resources. While the continent continues to grapple with infectious diseases, such as HIV, malaria, cholera, tuberculosis and child pneumonia, as well as problems with maternal health, there has also been a rise in noncommunicable diseases. But the number of health workers to respond to these challenges remains remarkably few.
In order to address the unequal distribution of healthcare workers, we need to understand the labour market dynamics that affect the training, recruitment, deployment and performance of global and local health workforces. There is a global shortage of healthcare workers, affecting high-, middle-, and low-income countries, from the USA and Germany to India and Uganda. The difference between high-income countries and low- and middle-income countries lies in their ability to address these health workforce shortages, and to invest in the recruitment and training of medical staff and managers. Too often, richer countries simply recruit staff from poorer ones. It is estimated that 10% of Sierra Leone’s trained nurses are working in the UK health system.
There are many issues that lead health workers to seek employment outside their country of origin, including low salaries, inadequate health facilities and a lack of training and career development. Serious investment in these areas is needed in order to avoid the damage to local health services that is caused through the loss of healthcare workers. When significant numbers of doctors and nurses leave the countries that financed their education, there is a huge loss of public investment which makes it more difficult to deliver services and to offer education and training to people who wish to enter the health profession in the future. While workers should enjoy freedom of movement, mechanisms should be in place to support their retention, such as improving working conditions, and remuneration and career development. In Zambia, for example, healthcare workers receive an extra 25% recruitment and retention allowance on top of their basic salary, which has been effective in decreasing the migration of nurses.
Ensuring countries have the human resources tackle health crises
Wealthier nations are more able to make these kinds of investments, not only within their own borders, but internationally through providing aid and sharing expertise. A recent Global Forum on Human Resources for Health recommended that each country with severe healthcare personnel shortages should be supported to develop and implement a budgeted plan to strengthen its health workforce, as part of a broader national health strategy. This should include a special focus on the most poor and marginalised sections of society, as well as strategies to train skilled health workers and maximise their performance.
The Ebola crisis has undermined the economic progress that Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea were making, thereby limiting the ability of these governments to make much-needed investments in their public services. It has, however, also succeeded in focusing attention on the shockingly unequal distribution of healthcare workers, which stands in the way of achieving key public health priorities, such as reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, increasing vaccine coverage, and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
The international community must invest in human resources for health for all. Health workers are the basis of a functioning healthcare system, which in turn helps to drive economic growth, save lives and improve the quality of life for millions of people around the world.
Lesotho has a new hospital – built and operated under the first public-private partnership (PPP) of its kind in any low-income country. The IFC advice and promise was that it would cost the same as the public hospital it replaced. Instead the PPP hospital is costing the government 51% of their total health budget while providing 25% returns to the private partner and a success fee of $723,000 for the IFC.
In a report released today, ‘A Dangerous Diversion’, Oxfam and the Consumer Protection Association (Lesotho) explain how the Lesotho health PPP was developed under the advice of the International Finance Corporation (IFC – the private sector investment arm of the World Bank) and now costs the government $67 million per year, or at least three times the cost of the old public hospital. The hospital is reported by the IFC to be delivering better outcomes in some areas. But the biggest concern is that as costs escalate for the PPP hospital in the capital, fewer and fewer resources will be available to tackle serious and increasing health problems in rural areas where three quarters of the population live.
A consortium called Tsepong Ltd – among whose shareholders are South African healthcare giant Netcare – won an 18-year contract to build and run the new 425-bed hospital. Its return on investment is 25%. The PPP is the first of its kind in a low-income country and more ambitious and complex than the majority of PPPs attempted in high-income contexts. Not only is the private consortium responsible for designing, building, maintaining and partly financing the hospital, it also provides all clinical services for the contract period.
Since well before the PPP contract was even signed (in 2009) the IFC was busy marketing it a major success, proposing it as a model for other countries to replicate. In 2007, Bernard Sheahan, the IFC‘s Director of Advisory Services, said:
‘This project provides a new model for governments and the private sector in providing health services for sub-Saharan Africa and other regions. The PPP structure enables the government to offer high-quality services more efficiently and within budget, while the private sector is presented with a new and robust market opportunity in health services.’
And despite a significant body of evidence highlighting the high risks and costs associated with health PPPs in rich and poor countries alike, similar IFC-supported health PPPs are now well advanced in Nigeria, and in the pipeline in Benin. The IFC’s health PPP advisory facility has financial backing from the governments of the UK, the Netherlands, South Africa and Japan.
So why is the PPP so expensive? There are multiple and wide-ranging reasons outlined in the new report and in a previous blog authored by Dr John Lister on this site. Some of these seem inherent to health PPPs and raise serious questions about why the model was pursued in a low-income, low-capacity context. Other cost increases appear to be a result of bad advice given by the IFC.
It is accepted that borrowing capital via the private sector will always be more expensive than governments borrowing on their own account. The theoretical cost saving and value for money potential of PPP financing and delivery therefore lies in effective risk transfer to the private sector and, in turn, the effective management of that risk by the private sector in the form of improved performance and greater cost efficiency in its operations. In the case of Lesotho, this potential benefit has not been realised, and the costs are already escalating to unsustainable levels. As savings on clinical services have not been delivered, it is even more important to raise serious questions about why cheaper public financing options were not pursued.
The biggest losers of the Lesotho health PPP are the majority of Basotho people who live below the poverty line in poor rural areas, who have little or no access to decent healthcare and where mortality rates are high and rising. Amongst the most severe challenges facing the health system is the shortage of health workers. Yet while the budget line covering the health PPP will see a 116% rise in the next 3 years, the health worker budget will see below inflation annual increases of just 4.7%.
As the country‘s health financing crisis escalates, the option of reintroducing and increasing user fees at primary and secondary level facilities has already been tabled for debate. Such a devastating and retrograde move in Lesotho would further exacerbate inequality and increase rather than reduce access to healthcare for the majority of the population. World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, recently stated that user fees for healthcare are both unjust and unnecessary. In an interview just last week in the UK’s Guardian newspaper Kim said:
“There’s now just overwhelming evidence that those user fees actually worsened health outcomes. There’s no question about it. So did the bank get it wrong before? Yeah. I think the bank was ideological.”
To ensure ideology rather than evidence is not driving the IFC’s continuing promotion of health PPPs in poor countries, our report calls for a fully independent review using peer reviewed evidence to question the appropriateness, cost-effectiveness and equity impact of this model. Oxfam and the Consumer Protection Association (Lesotho) also say that the IFC’s role in exposing Lesotho to such a high-risk, high-cost long-term contract should be investigated and, until then, the World Bank should stop all IFC advisory work in support of health PPPs.
Anna Marriott is the author of ‘A Dangerous Diversion’ and editor of Global Health Check.
The extreme gap between the rich and the poor has become headline news in countries around the world, with consensus from actors as diverse as the Pope, Christine Lagarde and President Obama that we need solutions to reverse the growing divide between the haves and the have nots.
In February 2014, backing a new IMF discussion paper, Christine Lagarde Director of the IMF underlined that ‘making taxation more progressive’ and ‘improving access to health and education’ have a key role to play in tacking inequality. Oxfam has worked for decades to promote universal access to quality health services, and in our new report ‘Working for the Many’ we consider evidence of how public services – especially health and education – impact on economic inequality.
First we consider a 2012 OECD study which quantifies the value of public services – the vast majority of which is health and education – to each quintile of the population, by converting that value into ‘virtual income’. The data shows that in OECD countries public services are worth the equivalent of a huge 76 per cent of the post-tax income of the poorest group, and just 14 per cent of the richest. So whilst public services benefit rich and poor equally in absolute terms, so that everyone is a winner, these services are strongly redistributive and help to mitigate the impact of today’s skewed income distribution by benefiting the poorest far more.
In fact, across OECD countries the virtual income gained from public services reduces income inequality by an average of 20 per cent. Similar calculations across six Latin American countries show the same impact – virtual income from health and education reduce income inequality by between 10 and 20 per cent.
Evidence from studies done across Asia, and more than 70 developing and transition countries shows the same underlying patterns in the world’s poorest countries. A 2007 study of healthcare systems in eight Asian countries and three Chinese provinces and regions shows that in all but one, healthcare had the same equalizing effect through progressive distribution of benefit. The more these governments spent on healthcare, the more progressive the distribution of income was and the more the healthcare system addressed economic inequality. This mirrors findings in the OECD study, that countries that increased public spending on services throughout the 2000s had an increasing rate of success in reducing income inequality. But those countries that cut spending during that time showed a marked decline in the rate of inequality reduction.
Whilst public services provide everyone with ‘virtual income’ and fight inequality by putting more in the pockets of the poorest; user fees and private services have the opposite effect.
User fees take money out of the pockets of the poorest and undermine the inequality-reducing potential of services. Health user fees cause 150 million people around the world to suffer financial catastrophe each year. That is approximately two per cent of the global population. And since Malaysia privatized portions of its health services and introduced user fees in the 1980s, out-of-pocket spending has risen, representing one-third of total healthcare spending in the country in 2009. A recent study in the USA showed that the poorest 20 per cent spend 15 per cent of their income on healthcare, compared to the richest 20 per cent for whom healthcare amounts to just 3 per cent of income. But despite this significant cost to the poorest, they still don’t get all the cover they need.
Private provision of healthcare further skews the benefit towards the richest. In three of the best performing Asian countries that have met or are close to meeting Universal Health Coverage – Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Hong Kong – the private sector is of negligible value to the poorest quintile of the population, and the benefits of private healthcare services are strongly regressive. They serve the richest far more than the poorest. Fortunately in these cases the public sector has compensated and allowed universal and equitable access to be achieved.
More recent and detailed evidence from a 2013 study of the Indian healthcare system finds that amongst the poorest 60 per cent of Indian women, the majority turn to public sector facilities to give birth, whilst the majority of those in the top two quintiles give birth in a private facility. Finally, comparable data from across 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa reveals that just three per cent of people from families living in the poorest quintile sought care from a private doctor when sick.
Fees take more away from the actual income of the poorest people, and private services benefit the richest first and foremost. If governments are serious about closing the gap between rich and poor, and achieving Universal Health Coverage, the evidence points them towards free public services.
Read the full paper, ‘Working for the Few: Public Services Fight Inequality’
Emma Seery is Head of Inequality Policy and Campaigns for Oxfam GB
In a country like Mozambique people face numerous barriers when accessing the health services that they need. I recently visited Mozambique with colleagues from the Action for Global Health network. This was one of a series of ‘fact-finding missions’ to explore issues of health service provision, access and financing faced by low-income countries, and the role of European development assistance.
Mozambique is a country that – even if all of its international and national commitments to health spending are met – still needs an extra $35.2 USD per person per year to ensure that all of the population has access to basic healthcare. The burden of making up for this financing gap inevitably falls on the population through direct and indirect out-of-pocket payments for health services. This is an impossible situation for a country that is still ranked at 184 out of 187 nations on the UN’s Human Development Index, and that has millions of people living in poverty.
While in Mozambique, we made a film that looks at all of the barriers that people face in accessing healthcare. Urban and rural settings present different challenges, but for this film we looked at the rural setting of Tsangano in the province of Tete, a huge region in the centre of the country.
The examples of Tsangano and Tete clearly show that all parts of a health system need to come together in order for the system as a whole to function. Tete has two million inhabitants and just 63 doctors. That means that there is just one doctor for 30,000 people, and one nurse for 8,000 people. When we advocate for an end to out-of-pocket payments we must ensure that the ‘key ingredients’ which make user fee removal a success are also addressed – the financing for the system as a whole and ensuring increased investment in transport and infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, the health workforce, access to medicines and better information for the population to demand their right to health.
You can watch the film we made here to find out more about access to healthcare in Mozambique.
Julia Ravenscroft is a Project and Communications Officer at Action for Global Health
Action for Global Health is a network of 15 NGOs working in six European countries and at the EU level in Brussels.