The Humanity Behind Frontline Health Care

November 14, 2017
By Margarite Nathe, Key Correspondent for the Irish Forum for Global Health


Kicker: The job is difficult, frustrating, risky—and immensely rewarding. The Fourth Global Forum on Human Resources for Health began with six powerful accounts from the front lines of health care.

Please don’t rape me. Please don’t rape me. Please don’t rape me.

This is what was going through Rushaana Gallow’s mind in 2015 when one of the men who had climbed into her ambulance to rob it put his hand inside her shirt. She and another emergency medical technician had been prepping to take on a patient who was having chest pains in one of Cape Town, South Africa’s “red zones”—areas so dangerous that health workers aren’t permitted to enter without a police escort—when they were attacked.

“I’ve been shot at,” Gallow told the audience yesterday during the first day of the Fourth Global Forum on Human Resources for Health. “I’ve been assaulted by patients’ families and friends. I’ve ended up with multiple injuries.”

Sometimes her friends ask why she keeps going back to a job that’s so difficult and dangerous, but her response is unwavering.

“I have a passion for what I do,” she tells them. “I love it.”

Rushaana was one of six frontline health workers from around the world on stage last night during the forum’s storytelling session. Each one told us about the moments from their careers that most terrified, elated, or surprised them—and what keeps them going to work every day despite the challenges.

It was perhaps a surprisingly humanizing end to the first day of a conference that’s drawn over 1,000 health workforce experts and global health specialists from around the world to Dublin, Ireland. Other topics throughout the day included health policy, financing, and data meta-analysis—all important, but unlikely to leave a lump in your throat.

I realized as the frontline health workers were speaking that the acronym “HRH” doesn’t do them justice. They are the human resources for health, the living beings that make any level of expert care possible. But the terminology will never capture what it takes to help a mother deliver her baby on the Liberian roadside by the light of a cell phone. Or to watch helplessly as a cardiac patient dies, despite everything you’ve done to try to help him. Or to hear a client say, “You’ve given me hope.”

Not every day on the front lines of health care is an inspiration, of course. The job is grueling and risky and frustrating. During the best moments, health workers like Gallow take comfort in knowing that they help the people of their communities—whose smiles, tears, and thanks make any other job unimaginable. Other times, though, they feel like they’re struggling to keep the conveyor belt of endless patients moving along, with too few resources to do the job well.

The job is made even more difficult by the worldwide shortage of health workers, which, according the World Health Organization, could reach 18 million by 2030 unless we manage to create 40 million new health sector jobs before then. This is a major barrier to reaching universal health coverage or any of the other aspirations we’ve set for ourselves through the global Sustainable Development Goals.

The hope of solving this challenge is front of mind for many of us here in Dublin this week. In the days ahead, we’ll hear in-depth discussions on what it will take to not only fill the shortage of health workers, but to build the ideal workforce of the future. One that can care for our changing, growing global population. One that’s ready for a rising tide of noncommunicable diseases and unexpected pandemics. One that has the training and resources it needs to provide health care to all 7.6 billion of us.


November 14th 2017


Margarite Nathe is senior editor/writer at IntraHealth International. As part of IntraHealth’s communications team and editor of the blog VITAL, she writes about global health, international development, and making the world a healthier place for all 7.6 billion of us.

Find out more about what IntraHealth International is doing to help build the health workforce of the future.

The session “Lives in their Hands: Stories by health workers from around the world” at the Fourth Global Forum on Human Resources for Health was hosted by the Frontline Health Workers Coalition and Women in Global Health. Health workers who shared their stories included nurse Miatta Gbanya from Liberia, doctor Hay Mar Khine from Myanmar, community health worker Maria Valenzuela from the United States, cardiac physiologist Paul Nolan from Ireland, nurse educator Marjorie Makukula from Zambia, and emergency medical technician Rushaana Gallow from South Africa.



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