The neglect of the global surgical workforce: experience and evidence from Uganda

World J Surg. 2008 Jun;32(6):1208-15. doi: 10.1007/s00268-008-9473-4.


Background: Africa's health workforce crisis has recently been emphasized by major international organizations. As a part of this discussion, it has become apparent that the workforce required to deliver surgical services has been significantly neglected.

Methods: This paper reviews some of the reasons for this relative neglect and emphasizes its importance to health systems and public health. We report the first comprehensive analysis of the surgical workforce in Uganda, identify challenges to workforce development, and evaluate current programs addressing these challenges. This was performed through a literature review, analysis of existing policies to improve surgical access, and pilot retrospective studies of surgical output and workforce in nine rural hospitals.

Results: Uganda has a shortage of surgical personnel in comparison to higher income countries, but the precise gap is unknown. The most significant challenges to workforce development include recruitment, training, retention, and infrastructure for service delivery. Curricular innovations, international collaborations, and development of research capacity are some of the initiatives underway to overcome these challenges. Several programs and policies are addressing the maldistribution of the surgical workforce in urban areas. These programs include surgical camps, specialist outreach, and decentralization of surgical services. Each has the advantage of improving access to care, but sustainability has been an issue for all of these programs. Initial results from nine hospitals show that surgical output is similar to previous studies and lags far behind estimates in higher-income countries. Task-shifting to non-physician surgical personnel is one possible future alternative.

Conclusions: The experience of Uganda is representative of other low-income countries and may provide valuable lessons. Greater attention must be paid to this critical aspect of the global crisis in human resources for health.

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Developing Countries*
  • General Surgery*
  • Humans
  • Medically Underserved Area
  • Personnel Management*
  • Professional Practice Location
  • Program Development
  • Rural Health Services
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / statistics & numerical data*
  • Uganda
  • Workforce