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Public Health

Health-EU newsletter 250 - Focus

Put the horse before the cart: Investing in health requires investing in health workforce

Andrzej Rys, European Commission Director of Health Systems, Medical Products and Innovation, discusses what the EU does to support its health workforce. During a health threat or health crisis, we are all reminded of the challenging but vital role of the medical staff, who are often the first contact patients, their families and friends have with the healthcare system. But the health workforce itself faces both external and internal challenges such as shortages of staff, geographical inequalities, lack of specific training, changing technologies and care demands and insufficient workforce planning.

What do you think is the biggest challenge the Member States face right now when it comes to health workforce?

The challenges across the Members States are similar: in the sense that it is not possible for health systems to deliver high quality care to all Europeans without a health workforce in sufficient numbers, with the right skills and in the right places.

There is an estimated shortage of nearly 1 million health workers in Europe. There is also a ‘brain drain‘ of doctors and nurses who move to countries with better working conditions and pay, leaving other countries with shortages.

Equally worrying is the skills mismatch among health professionals, which wastes human capital, strains public resources and undermines the cost-effective delivery of healthcare.

We also need to ensure that technological changes in healthcare are adjusted to the needs of the health workforce as well as of the patient, that the workforce can adapt to new situations and that the changes do indeed improve care delivery.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution - each Member State must develop its own reforms according to the needs of its health system.

What is the EU doing to support its health workforce?

The EU Treaty states that health policy and the organisation and delivery of health services and medical care is, indeed, a national competence.

The Commission monitors and analyses health workforce challenges through the European Semester, which covers a broad range of issues like shortages of professionals, working conditions, deficit skills and the organisation of human resources to fit more integrated healthcare systems.

The Commission supports national authorities to address these challenges, to share experiences and to learn from each other. That’s why the Joint Action on Health Workforce Planning and Forecasting was adopted and why the ongoing health-workforce planning and forecasting expert network was established.

The Commission will continue to provide support and will soon launch a call for projects through the 2020 Health Programme to support initiatives focusing on health workforce retention policies, access to healthcare in underserved areas, and the reorganisation of care delivery between hospitals and other community and primary healthcare centres through task shifting and interpersonal coordination.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Yes and with good reason, as health systems in Europe are among the best in the world. And we can’t forget that we are living in a golden age regarding healthcare and that things are constantly improving.

But we do need to bear in mind that we live an increasingly inter-connected world, where risks can quickly scale up and become of global concern.

So it is of paramount importance to continually invest in health. This means first and foremost investing in keeping people in good health for as long as possible. Investing in our health workforce is an essential part of that, keeping our health professionals current, safe to practice, and able to meet new skill needs. Investing in the people who help keep others healthy is always a wise investment with high returns.

Activities at EU level

Health Workforce

European Commission – Health and Food Safety

The Expert Panel on Effective Ways of Investing in Health

European Commission – Health and Food Safety

Health Systems Performance Assessment

European Commission – Health and Food Safety


‘Profiling and training the health care workers of the future’ thematic network now active on the EU Health Policy Platform

This network aims at profiling the health care workers' of the future, identifying and improving their core competences and pointing out their critical role in reforming health care systems. Join the EU Health Policy Platform to participate.

‘Digital Doc’ thematic network now active on the EU Health Policy Platform

Digital Doc is focused on providing the right digital skills for the best future proof doctors in order to achieve effective, ethical, technology-driven health care systems that place people central. Join the EU Policy Platform to participate.

Identify weaknesses and monitor your planning with the Toolkit on Health Workforce Planning

This self-evaluation toolkit, made available through the EU-funded Expert network for health workforce planning and forecasting, addresses major topics in health workforce planning and is adaptable for different country environments.

International conference on the future of work held 12 February in Rome

The Italian Workers Compensation Authority and the International Commission on Occupational Health organised the conference to discuss the rapid progress of technological innovation; demographic changes and changes in the labour market, among other topics.

Health Programme Projects

EU Joint Action on Health Workforce Planning and Forecasting

This Joint Action aims to improve the capacity for health workforce planning and forecasting by supporting European collaboration.

SEPEN - Support for the health workforce planning and forecasting expert network

Join the Health Policy Platform to find latest news about health workforce planning in Europe through this network. Discuss and post ideas, get updates on national-level developments, and find relevant documents and reports.

Other interesting links

Communication from the Commission on effective, accessible and resilient health systems

Although dated, this communication still provides a valuable look at EU-level approaches to health workforce challenges and focuses on actions that strengthen the effectiveness of health systems, increase the accessibility of healthcare and improve the resilience of health systems.

Action Plan for EU health workforce (2012)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – Health Workforce

WHO Europe - Health Workforce

The toolkit for a sustainable health workforce in the WHO European Region (2018)

The toolkit is aimed at policy-makers, human resources for health planners and professionals, and other stakeholders, such as education institutions and those implementing policy.

Managing health workforce migration – The WHO Global Code of Practice on the International Recruitment of Health Personnel

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

European Public Health Alliance

A member-led organisation made up of public health NGOs, patient groups, health professionals and disease groups, this organisation works to improve health and strengthen the voice of public health in Europe.

Health First Europe

Health First Europe is a non-profit, non-commercial alliance of patients, healthcare workers, academics, healthcare experts and the medical technology industry.

Follow #EUWorkforce4Care on Twitter