The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has placed a substantial burden on many healthcare systems worldwide as they struggle to treat both COVID-19 patients and maintain essential primary care services. The burden may be even greater in low-resource non-US settings, where healthcare systems are often already overtaxed and struggling to provide services to patients in need due to a shortage in the healthcare workforce.
The World Health Organization (WHO) outlines two approaches to expand and ensure access to essential health services by optimizing the use of the existing healthcare workforce: task shifting and task sharing1 2. Task shifting and task sharing allow for the shifting of tasks from highly qualified healthcare workers (HCWs) to HCWs with less training and less qualifications and the sharing of tasks with an equally qualified cadre of HCWs, respectively. This allows for more efficient use of available human resources working in overburdened health systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These two strategies may be one part of a larger strategy to expand and strengthen health system capacity to increase access to COVID-19 care while maintaining essential health services. Additionally, these strategies can help protect and maintain the health and wellbeing of the healthcare workforce by reducing their workload and strategically using staff who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 in a way that decreases their risk of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.
These considerations are intended for countries where access to basic essential health services is constrained due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that have an underlying health workforce shortage, and that are considering implementation of a task shifting or sharing approach to strengthen and expand the health workforce for the delivery of COVID-19 care and other essential health services. Primarily this document is aimed at health care policy makers, program managers and staff in Ministries of Health who manage human resources for health along with local and international organizations providing essential health services that have been affected by the pandemic.
Task shifting and task sharing reflect the same intention – to include cadres who do not normally have competencies for specific tasks to deliver them and to thereby increase levels of health care access. Both emphasize the need for training and continued educational support of all cadres of health workers in order for them to undertake the tasks they are to perform. Additionally, routine supportive supervision and a well-functioning referral system are essential preconditions for success. The suggestions in this document generally apply to task sharing and task shifting approaches.
Task shiftingexternal icon is the process of delegation whereby tasks are moved, where appropriate, to less specialized HCWs1. This reorganization of the workforce, along with expanded training and retention programs, can allow a health system to more efficiently use the existing workforce and ease bottlenecks in service delivery while also expanding workforce capacity1 2.
Task sharing increases the categories of HCWs who can deliver certain health services. With task sharing, tasks are not taken away from one cadre or set of HCWs and given to another, but they are shared across groups2. Task sharing enables low- and mid-level health professionals to perform tasks and procedures that would normally be restricted to higher level health professionals, thereby freeing up time for these higher-level providers within a health system.
HCWs may face poor working conditions, low pay, and a sense of being overburdened due to an increase in demand without a comparable increase in a skilled workforce to share the workload in an equitable manner. In addition, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic frontline HCWs are challenged with putting themselves and their immediate and extended families at risk for contracting the virus that causes COVID-19.
Ultimately the goal of task shifting and sharing in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic is to standardize, simplify, and decentralize systems to maximize the role of primary health care and community based care as it relates to the provision of COVID-19 clinical care1. Good management, supportive supervision, and political will are important for ensuring successful outcomes from task shifting and sharing.
Given the urgent need to keep essential health services functional during the COVID-19 pandemic, the steps below take into consideration the following: the demand placed on health systems by COVID-19, the legal/ regulatory environment, characteristics of the health system involved, possible resource constraints in low income settings, and what to consider when developing an implementation plan. These steps and considerations have been generalized to be applicable to most situations. Given the uniqueness of each environment in which these steps could be implemented, additional considerations specific to that environment may need to be considered. Additional references and resources can be found in Annex III.
The following table describes examples of tasks under specific health programs that may be shifted or shared. It is assumed that shifting and/or sharing of these tasks comes with adequate training, monitoring, and supervision as described in this document.
Task Shifting and Task Sharing-general:
- Global Health Workforce Alliance Resource library on task shiftingexternal icon
- How Surge Staffing Can Fight COVID-19external icon
- Task-shifting: experiences and opinions of health workers in Mozambique and Zambiaexternal icon
- Task Shifting the Management of Non-Communicable Diseases to Nurses in Kibera, Kenya: Does It Work?external icon
- Delegation and Task-Shiftingpdf iconexternal icon
Surgery and Anesthesia:
- Task shifting and task sharing for neurosurgeons amidst the COVID-19 pandemicexternal icon
- Bridging the human resource gap in surgical and anesthesia care in low-resource countries: a review of the task sharing literatureexternal icon
- Surgical Task-Sharing to Non-specialist Physicians in Low-Resource Settings Globally: A Systematic Review of the Literatureexternal icon
Management of Chronic Conditions:
- What to Know About HIV and COVID-19
- Task Shifting for Non-Communicable Disease Management in Low and Middle Income Countries-A Systematic Reviewexternal icon
- Task sharing with non-physician health-care workers for management of blood pressure in low-income and middle-income countries: a systematic review and meta-analysisexternal icon
- Task-sharing Interventions for Cardiovascular Risk Reduction and Lipid Outcomes in Low- And Middle-Income Countries: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysisexternal icon
- Caring for Children and Adolescents With Eating Disorders in the Current Coronavirus 19 Pandemic: A Singapore Perspectiveexternal icon
- Human resources for mental health care: current situation and strategies for actionexternal icon
- Task Sharing Approaches to Improve Mental Health Care in Rural and Other Low Resource Settings: A Systematic Reviewexternal icon
- Mental Health Collaborative Care and Its Role in Primary Care Settingsexternal icon
Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health Care
- Operational Considerations for Maintaining Essential Services for and Providing Maternal, Newborn, and Child Healthcare in Low-Resource Countries
Economic Impact of Task Shifting:
- Economic evaluation of task-shifting approachesexternal icon
- Does task shifting yield cost savings and improve efficiency of health systems? A systematic review of evidence from low-income and middle-income income countriesexternal icon
Considerations in Protecting Healthcare Workers
- WHO, Treat, Train, Retain. The AIDS and health workforce plan. Report on the consultation on AIDS and human resources for health., Geneva: World Health Organization , 2006.
- WHO, Task sharing to improve access to Family Planning/Contraception: Summary brief, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2012, p. 3.
- WHO, Task shifting to tackle health worker shortages, 2007.
- WHO, Task shifting: rational redistribution of tasks among health workforce teams: global recommendations and guidelines, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2008, p. 7.
- WHO, “WHO Recommendations on task shifting components of antenatal care deliveryexternal icon,” 28 March 2018. [Online].
- WHO, Guideline: Managing possible bacterial infection in young infants when referral is not feasible, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2015.
- WHO, Package of essential noncommunicable (PEN) disease interventions for primary health care in low resource settings, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2010.
- WHO, mhGAP Humanitarian Intervention Guide (mhGAP-HIG): clinical management of mental, neurological and substance use conditions in humanitarian emergencies, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2015.
- Jhpiego, “Resources: Delegation Decision Treepdf iconexternal icon,” [Online]. [Accessed 16 June 2020].
- WHO, Guidelines for treatment of drug-susceptible tuberculosis and patient care, 2017 update, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2017.
- Ariadne Labs, “News: Tackling the Covid-19 Human Resource Emergencyexternal icon,” Ariadnes Labs, June 2020. [Online]. [Accessed June 2020].
- K. Tulenko and N. D’Lima, “MedicineNet: How Surge Staffing Can Fight COVID-19external icon,” MedicineNet, 15 April 2020. [Online]. [Accessed June 2020].
- WHO, Maintaining essential health services: operational guidance for the COVID-19 context: Interim guidance, 1 June 2020, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2020.
- WHO, Operational considerations for case management of COVID-19 in health facility and community: interim guidance,, Geneva: World Health Organization, 2020.
- WHO and UNICEF, Community-based health care, including outreach campaigns, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: Interim guidance, May 2020, Geneva: World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund, 2020.