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Women an 'Invisible Subsidy' to the World’s Health Care Systems
July 12, 2015, 2:45 pm

In 2010, women in 32 countries did so much work caring for sick folks that it should have been worth US$3 trillion—but about half of that work went unpaid, according to a new report commissioned by the journal The Lancet.

Governments should come up with programs that better pay or otherwise support female health care workers, the report's authors argue. Better pay and benefits would not only be fair, it would improve the level of care provided by nurses, midwives, and community health workers — positions held mostly by women worldwide. As an example, the report notes that Finnish nurses were more motivated and provided better quality of care after their union earned them benefits such as more predictable hours and guaranteed time off between shifts.

Who is performing all this underpaid—sometimes unpaid—health work? One major contingent are community health workers or midwife. In remote or low-income regions, these types of workers are often the only health care experts locals have access to. And studies show that, when well supported, such workers indeed do improve the health of their neighbors.

One survey found that only seven percent of community health workers in six African countries receive a stipend, even though high local demand often pushes such workers to put in long hours. Paying workers, the researchers argue, would likely improve community health programs. Payment also reduces turnover in the positions, which makes programs less effective, one recent World Health Organization review found.

In addition, women are more likely than men to take on the responsibility of caring for a disabled or aging relative or friend at home. And regardless of these home caretakers' gender, they mostly end up being an "invisible subsidy to health systems and societies," the researchers write. But it doesn't have to be this way. The report highlights programs in Costa Rica, Turkey, and the United Kingdom that pay home caregivers.

Research suggests professions end up being undervalued because more women work in them. In general, ‘caregiving’ has long been thought of as women's work, and long gone uncompensated. But what could be more important to compensate than health care and healing?

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