The World Health Organization (WHO) reports a shortage of healthcare workers worldwide, especially in rural areas. Healthcare workers are defined as those whose main activities are aimed at enhancing health – including doctors, nurses, and laboratory technicians, as well as management and support staff. Of the estimated 59.3 million healthcare workers worldwide, approximately two-thirds (39.5 million) provide health services. Rural areas of the United States are facing a shortage of healthcare personnel, and 57 countries throughout Africa and Asia are facing a severe healthcare workforce crisis. The WHO estimates that in order to fill the gap, at least 2.36 million service providers and 1.89 million support staff are needed. Between developing and developed nations, a large imbalance can be seen in the healthcare staff available. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, an area with 11 percent of the global population, there are only three percent of the world’s healthcare providers.
According to the Grosse Pointe News, Institute of Medicine figures indicate that by 2030 77 million Americans will be 65 or older. For the nearly 20 percent of these individuals who have five or more chronic health conditions, access to healthcare workers able to provide elder care is essential. Further, a report from Minnesota Public Radio indicates that though 13 percent of the state’s population lives in rural areas, only five percent of the physicians practice there. This shortage of doctors and other healthcare providers in rural areas is a national trend, and ultimately causes patients to experience longer non-emergency wait times, providers who are fully booked and/or not accepting new patients, and more care provision by mid-level practitioners. CNN reports that the findings of Barbara Starfield at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health indicate that an increase of one primary care physician per 10,000 people would result in a 34.6 fewer deaths per 100,000 people at the state level.
Increasing the availability of healthcare and health services is a major aim of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Goals also seek to reduce child mortality, improve maternal health outcomes, combat HIV/AIDS and diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, and ensure the availability of medications. In order to increase the availability of healthcare in rural areas, the WHO suggests a number of measures, including reassignment of needed healthcare workers during conflict situations. While this may increase the health outcomes for the population in the region, it also poses a risk to the providers – one that could be avoided through the use of telemedicine and teleconsultation programs like iConsult. Through teleconsultation, specialty care physicians can remotely provide advice and support to doctors within a region.