The complex remuneration of human resources for health in low-income settings: policy implications and a research agenda for designing effective financial incentives

Maria Paola Bertone and Sophie Witter Human Resources for Health 2015, 13:62


Human resources for health represent an essential component of health systems and play a key role to accelerate progress towards universal health coverage. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa face challenges regarding the availability, distribution and performance of health workers, which could be in part addressed by providing effective financial incentives.

Based on an overview of the existing literature, the paper highlights the gaps in the existing research in low-income countries exploring the different components of health workers’ incomes. It then proposes a novel approach to the analysis of financial incentives and delineates a research agenda, which could contribute to shed light on this topic.

The article finds that, while there is ample research that investigates separately each of the incomes health workers may earn (for example, salary, fee-for-service payments, informal incomes, “top-ups” and per diems, dual practice and non-health activities), there is a dearth of studies which look at the health workers’ “complex remuneration”, that is, the whole of the financial incentives available. Little research exists which analyses simultaneously all revenues of health workers, quantifies the overall remuneration and explores its complexity, its multiple components and their features, as well as the possible interaction between income components. However, such a comprehensive approach is essential to fully comprehend health workers’ incentives, by investigating the causes (at individual and system level) of the fragmentation in the income structure and the variability in income levels, as well as the consequences of the “complex remuneration” on motivation and performance. This proposition has important policy implications in terms of devising effective incentive packages as it calls for an active consideration of the role that “complex remuneration” plays in determining recruitment, retention and motivation patterns, as well as, more broadly, the performance of health systems.

This paper argues that research focusing on the health workers’ “complex remuneration” is critical to address some of the most challenging issues affecting human resources for health. An empirical research agenda is proposed to fill the gap in our understanding.

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