Introduction: Current health policy directions in Zambia are formulated in the National Health Strategic Plan. The Plan focuses on national health priorities, which include the human resources (HR) crisis. In this paper we describe the way the HRH establishment is distributed in the different provinces of Zambia, with a view to assess the dimension of shortages and of imbalances in the distribution of health workers by province and by level of care.
Population and methods: We used secondary data from the "March 2008 payroll data base", which lists all the public servants on the payroll of the Ministry of Health and of the National Health Service facilities. We computed rates and ratios and compared them.
Results: The highest relative concentration of all categories of workers was observed in Northern, Eastern, Lusaka, Western and Luapula provinces (in decreasing order of number of health workers).The ratio of clinical officers (mid-level clinical practitioners) to general medical officer (doctors with university training) varied from 3.77 in the Lusaka to 19.33 in the Northwestern provinces. For registered nurses (3 to 4 years of mid-level training), the ratio went from 3.54 in the Western to 15.00 in Eastern provinces and for enrolled nurses (two years of basic training) from 4.91 in the Luapula to 36.18 in the Southern provinces.This unequal distribution was reflected in the ratio of population per cadre. The provincial distribution of personnel showed a skewed staff distribution in favour of urbanized provinces, e.g. in Lusaka's doctor: population ratio was 1: 6,247 compared to Northern Province's ratio of 1: 65,763.In the whole country, the data set showed only 109 staff in health posts: 1 clinical officer, 3 environmental health technologists, 2 registered nurses, 12 enrolled midwives, 32 enrolled nurses, and 59 other.The vacancy rates for level 3 facilities(central hospitals, national level) varied from 5% in Lusaka to 38% in Copperbelt Province; for level 2 facilities (provincial level hospitals), from 30% for Western to 70% for Copperbelt Province; for level 1 facilities (district level hospitals), from 54% for the Southern to 80% for the Western provinces; for rural health centres, vacancies varied from 15% to 63% (for Lusaka and Luapula provinces respectively); for urban health centres the observed vacancy rates varied from 13% for the Lusaka to 96% for the Western provinces. We observed significant shortages in most staff categories, except for support staff, which had a significant surplus.
Discussion and conclusions: This case study documents how a peaceful, politically stable African country with a longstanding tradition of strategic management of the health sector and with a track record of innovative approaches dealt with its HRH problems, but still remains with a major absolute and relative shortage of health workers. The case of Zambia reinforces the idea that training more staff is necessary to address the human resources crisis, but it is not sufficient and has to be completed with measures to mitigate attrition and to increase productivity.