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How online learning providers are empowering medical professionals in some of the world’s developing nations

  • 9 February 2023
  • By Peter Horrocks
  • This blog was kindly contributed by Peter Horrocks, Chair of postgraduate online learning provider, Learna. Peter was formerly the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University. Prior to that he was at the BBC, where he held roles including Head of Current Affairs, Head of TV News and Head of the Multimedia Newsroom. He was also the Director of the BBC World Service from 2009 to 2014.
  • HEPI’s next public event is a half-day conference with Elsevier looking to the future of research in UK higher education, on Wednesday, 1 March 2023 – to register for a place, please go to

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates a projected shortfall of 10 million health workers by 2030, mostly in low and lower-middle income countries.

The reasons behind this deficit are – as you might expect – complex, but its central pillars are: continuing chronic under-investment in education and training of health workers in many countries; a discrepancy between education and employment policies in relation to individual healthcare systems and population needs; difficulties in deploying health workers to remote and underserved areas; and the increasing international migration of health workers away from low and lower-middle income countries. 

According to the WHO, Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East will shoulder an increasing burden of workforce shortages, and projected shortfall figures are yet to take into account the impact of the pandemic on global healthcare systems.

Taking education as arguably the central issue in this deeply multifaceted international challenge provides a good lens through which we can view the problem.

Crucially, how can low and lower-middle income countries significantly increase the education and training of their healthcare workers when substantial economic and infrastructure challenges stand in the way?

In the short term, the answer lies with countries whose own educational infrastructure is significantly more advanced, both in terms of traditional in-person teaching models and online learning – countries like the UK. With this in mind many governments within developing nations, and indeed individuals, are increasingly turning to distance learning programs to deliver the education that is so badly needed, thereby gaining access to educators and student peers from all across the world.

Vitally, this approach also means that these highly prized healthcare workers can continue to live, learn and work in their own countries, rather than leaving to train abroad and often not returning to deliver their much needed knowledge and skills to their own communities.

This new wave of online medical education, which often takes the form of scholarships, is being delivered through new and innovative delivery models in order to ensure that collectively we continue to improve access to quality and equitable healthcare solutions in underserved communities.

One such example of this is the collaboration between the UK based online medical learning provider Learna, who in collaboration with the likes of the University of South Wales, partner with the Merck Foundation – the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA – the German multinational science and technology company in order to offer scholarships to African students.

Learna is currently working with 361 students sponsored by the Merck Foundation in African nations including Ghana and Zimbabwe, who are studying Postgraduate Diploma and MSc courses, including Diabetes, Rheumatology, and Preventative Cardiovascular Medicine. Over the years over 120 students sponsored by the Merck Foundation have already graduated from Learna’s medical programmes.

Narrowing down this story still further. it is also important to think about this way of studying in terms of the student experience. As excellent as the in-person medical learning experience is, it tends to provide an in-depth knowledge of one country’s medical context and practice. This is of course absolutely acceptable for learners who intend to stay and practise in their country of study; however, for international students it perhaps lacks the more holistically global approach that an online learning experience can help to deliver.

This is because for students in developing nations, who are learning online while remaining at home, not to mention continuing to work, many of their online student peers would be healthcare professionals very much like themselves, who are living, working and studying in developing communities too. As a result they possess a very real understanding of each others lived experiences, both as medics and citizens, operating in often challenging circumstances. A natural empathy would exist that would help inform their learning experiences and outcomes. It would be a far more peer led learning experience.

As many see it this is the best of both worlds, where students in developing nations can benefit from the enormous capabilities provided by the UK’s higher education digital infrastructure, while also continuing to reside and understand their potential as a medical practitioner in their own socio-economic-cultural environments.

So what’s the future of accessing e-learning platforms to develop and increase the number of healthcare professionals in developing countries? For most the question is not whether e-learning will be a component of health education in developing nations, but rather how rapid and extensive its advancement will become, and how it will evolve to meet the needs of countries dealing with often overwhelmingly unique and complex issues. 

And it’s my view that this will be achieved via effective and innovative global partnerships between e-learning providers, philanthropists and local health systems.

An effective three-way collaboration of this kind will go a long way to help create quality and low-cost solutions to the dearth of education and training in low and lower-middle income countries that is fuelling the worldwide shortage in healthcare workers.

Support for such an approach has recently been shown in a recent HEPI piece by Richard F. Heller, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Manchester, UK and Newcastle, Australia. It echoes my own thoughts on developing global networks for online learning that will benefit the many and not the few, thereby strengthening us all in the longer term.

What is clear to me is that a symbiotic international approach to online learning that increases global access to education will carve a clear path forwards when it comes to educating our healthcare workers, both now and long into the future.

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