A World Health Organization study finds 90% of 135 countries and territories surveyed report COVID-19 has disrupted access to essential health services.
The U.N. agency's report says little has changed since WHO issued its first survey in August on the pandemic’s impact on health care. The one bright spot, the current survey found, is that the magnitude and extent of disruptions to health care has decreased globally. In 2020, countries reported about half of essential health services were disrupted. In the first three months of this year, WHO reports just over one third of services are now being disrupted.
WHO reports people in low- and middle-income countries experience the greatest difficulty in getting health care. The most frequently disrupted health services include routine immunization, treatment for mental disorders, cancer screening and treatment, family planning and contraception, and urgent dental care.
WHO group leader for vaccine safety, Patrick Zuber, says the survey’s main finding is that more than a year into the pandemic, COVID-19 disruptions to health services persist globally.
“The main reason for those disruptions is a lack of enough health workforce to address additional demands related to COVID-19.... Addressing the health work force limitations is likely to be a game changer in the response and future strengthening of the health systems,” Zuber said.
Health workers are crucial in caring for and treating people infected with the coronavirus. They are a crucial element in the diagnostic, therapeutic and vaccination efforts underway to end the pandemic.
Jim Campbell, the director of WHO’s Health Workforce Department, says there are not enough health workers to deal with COVID-19 patients and those with other ailments. This, he says, has resulted in a global scramble for their services.
“There are, we estimate, more than 4 million infections of health care workers since the pandemic started. For every time one of those health workers is infected, there is somebody absent from work. Staff absentees also, with infections, with deaths with burnout and stress … and we see that has a detrimental impact,” Campbell said.
WHO recommends a number of steps to address health care disruptions. In addition to recruitment of more staff, WHO advises sending patients to other care facilities, providing home-based care, and replacing in-person consultations with telemedicine.