Our changing medical workforce

Wednesday 24 May 2023

I’ve always been interested in the latest statistics and trends in healthcare, but looking at the predicted future of the global workforce it paints a gloomy picture. WHO estimates there will be a shortage worldwide of 10 million health workers by 2030. Perhaps I need to use a stronger word than ‘gloomy’. Considering much of what has been happening in healthcare across the world lately, it feels like systems are already at breaking point.

We’re in a much worse position after the COVID pandemic and with NHS waiting times at record levels, it doesn’t bear thinking about the impact this will have on patient care.

I recently gave a talk at the Nottingham Medico Chirurgical Society, where I spoke about the importance of the retention of our medical workforce, with two significant pinch points being burnout and training. So as disheartening as it is to hear about the severity of the global workforce in the years to come, it does bring home the importance of how we can work together to avert this decline.


Training is one key aspect. There are high levels of burnout in staff. As I write, healthcare workers are or plan to be on strike in over 100 countries around the world. Countries need to be training between 8-12% of current staff levels every year simply to maintain the status quo, but the reality is we need to be training much more than 12%.

Being able to tempt doctors from abroad is one strategy, but this will never be enough. We need to be looking after the workforce better, with a greater focus on wellbeing and reducing burnout. What’s happening now isn’t temporary; as the WHO prediction for the coming years suggests, it’s only going to get much worse unless something changes. It means looking at different ways of working, as the simple fact is that we’re never going to have enough doctors.

International doctors

International doctors play a huge role in driving growth in the medical workforce, but when there’s such a demand, it means every country needs to work hard to attract the best healthcare workers. Everyone has a personal choice, which means maintaining standards across the world and providing a good quality of life to attract doctors.

There’s also a shortage of women in leadership roles in healthcare, even though 70% of the global healthcare workforce are women. Women occupy only 25% of all healthcare leadership positions around the world.

Primary care

We all need to be supporting primary care. There’s been an acceleration in the decline in the number of GPs in recent years, which isn’t keeping pace with the number of patients who need treatment. We’re also seeing patients with increasingly more complex diseases and going back and forth to hospitals for treatment. People need treatment to be available much closer to home in their communities.

A healthcare storm is coming, and the clock is ticking. There are things we can do, but we need to act now.

Dr Katharine Halliday, RCR President