Global surgical, obstetric, and anesthetic task shifting: A systematic literature review

Surgery. 2018 Sep;164(3):553-558. doi: 10.1016/j.surg.2018.04.024. Epub 2018 Jul 4.


Background: Five billion people lack access to safe, affordable, and timely surgical care; this is in part driven by severe shortages in the global surgical workforce. Task shifting is commonly implemented to expand the surgical workforce. A more complete understanding of the global distribution and use of surgical, obstetric, and anesthetic task shifting is lacking in the literature. We aimed to document the use of task shifting worldwide with a systematic review of the literature.

Methods: We performed a systematic review of 10 health literature databases. We included journal articles published between January 1, 1995, and February 17, 2017, documenting the provision of surgical or anesthetic care by associate clinicians (any non-physician clinician). We extracted data for health cadres performing task shifting, types of tasks performed, training programs, and levels of supervision, and compared these across regions and income groups.

Results: We identified 55 relevant studies, with data for 52 countries for surgery and 147 countries for anesthesia. Surgical task shifting was documented in 19 of 52 countries and anesthetic task shifting in 119 of 147. Task shifting was documented across all World Bank income groups. No associate clinicians were found to perform surgical procedures unsupervised in high-income countries (0 of 3 countries with data). Independent anesthesia care by associate clinicians was noted in 3 of 19 countries with data. In low-income countries, associate clinicians performed surgical procedures independently in 2 of 3 countries and independent anesthesia care in 17 of 17 countries with data.

Conclusion: Task shifting is used to augment the global surgical, obstetric, and anesthetic workforce across all geographic regions and income groups. Associate clinicians are ubiquitous among the global surgical workforce and should be considered in plans to scale up the surgical workforce. Further research is required to assess outcomes, especially in low-income and middle-income countries where documented supervision is less robust.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesiology / organization & administration*
  • Delivery of Health Care / organization & administration*
  • General Surgery / organization & administration*
  • Health Workforce / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Obstetrics / organization & administration*