Imagine a health professional in any European country who fell asleep in 1960 and awoke in a health facility in 2019. Much of what the observer saw would be quite different. There would be many more patients who were surviving into old age thanks to advances in therapy. Many of the treatments that they were receiving would be much more complex, involving radically new techniques such as laparoscopic or even robotic surgery, and they would be amazed by the advances in diagnostic capacity. Yet, in many health systems, some things would have changed very little. Among them would be the traditional roles of different types of health worker, with responsibility for certain task
being reserved for those with particular qualifications based on custom and practice rather than on evidence.
This opinion argues that this situation must change. There is now an impressive body of evidence that things can often be done differently. This does not mean that they should be. Change is only appropriate where it helps to achieve the goals of the health system and allows it to provide better care in ways that are more responsive to the needs of users. Tasks can be shifted from health workers to patients and their carers, to machines, and to other health workers. Where these shifts have been evaluated, they often, but not always, are associated with outcomes that are as good or even better than with the status quo. However, the results are often context dependent, and it cannot be assumed that what works in one situation will apply equally to another. What matters is the evidence, rather than traditional, but often obsolete rules.
If a health system can ensure that tasks are being undertaken by those most appropriate to do them, it will enhance patient care. However, change is often difficult. Those involved must be convinced of the rationale for change and must be supported in
implementing it. This should recognise that any change in roles will have implication for their status and thus existing hierarchies. It may also be necessary to challenge outdated
legislative or regulatory barriers. Finally, it is essential the changes are evaluated, results are documented, and lessons are learned, both in relation to what works and in what circumstances. Task shifting, where it is based on robust evidence and implemented effectively, can make a major contribution to health outcomes and to the sustainability of health systems. It is not, however, a panacea for all of the challenges health systems face.