Ensuring progress of quality universal health coverage

dr poonam khetrapal singh | Updated on April 26, 2019

For this, the functioning of primary care needs to be improved without delay

The World Health Organization and its Member States have committed to 1 billion more people across the world benefiting from universal health coverage (UHC) by 2024. That means a billion more people — whether woman or man, young or old, in a city or village — getting the healthcare they need, where and when they need it, without suffering financial hardship.

The commitment to UHC in WHO’s South-East Asia Region is not new: UHC has been one of the region’s flagship priorities since 2014. The challenge today is how to accelerate progress towards UHC. And this is where primary health care comes in.

The majority of a person’s health needs — whatever their age or health condition — can be delivered by well-functioning primary health care (PHC). There is plenty of evidence that this is both equitable and efficient. Frontline services tend to be geographically closer to people than hospitals, especially in remote areas. The case for PHC is sound.

Political momentum for UHC is high, and there is renewed commitment to PHC. In October 2018, at the Conference on Primary Health Care in Astana, countries from across the world agreed that providing quality PHC is fundamental to advancing UHC. In September 2019, the UN General Assembly will hold a high-level meeting on UHC, where heads of government will deliberate on how to accelerate progress. Delivering more equitable access to quality primary health care will be core to the discussion.

To deliver quality health care, sufficient health workers and improved access to quality medicines are needed. Since 2014, achieving these outcomes has been a region-wide priority.

Two examples stand out. First is the drive to increase the number and skills of health workers, particularly in rural areas. As a recent WHO report outlines, the availability of doctors, nurses and midwives has improved. The momentum generated by the region’s Decade of Strengthening Human Resources for Health must be maintained — and intensified: numbers still fall short of the Sustainable Development Goal threshold for health workers.

Second is improving access to medicines. The WHO-supported South-East Asia Regulatory Network is just one example of growing inter-country collaboration to strengthen the availability of quality medicines. Moreover, medicines continue to be the main driver of out-of-pocket spending on health care. At least 65 million people region-wide are pushed into poverty because of health spending. Importantly, government health budgets have increased in around half of the region’s countries — a trend that must continue to improve access and reduce out-of-pocket spending.

Hurdles in the way

Despite these advances, major inequities remain. Some 800 million people region-wide still do not have full coverage of essential health services. Frontline services are often perceived as being only for women, children and the poor, and as being of poor quality. Bypassing them altogether is common. That points to a significant problem: Despite Member States’ substantial efforts, the quality of primary care is now considered a bigger barrier to achieving UHC than insufficient access.

There are several ways forward, and many opportunities to hasten progress. Most urgently, frontline services must adapt to provide continuing care for people with non-communicable diseases and with health issues associated with ageing. New service-delivery models and appropriately skilled primary health workers are needed.

Frontline and hospital services should be addressed together to increase the use of frontline services and decrease over-crowding in hospitals. New approaches must be found to better engage private practitioners and address the double challenge of protecting people from financial exploitation and poor-quality care, while harnessing the private sector’s extensive assets.

Fresh approaches to community engagement are needed. The rapid increase in access to information via digital technologies means individuals and communities are increasingly well-informed on health issues.

We know we can do it. Now is the time to deliver. The WHO is committed to supporting Member States chart the way forward by enhancing equitable access to quality frontline services, thereby working towards our region’s own flagship priority, helping a billion more people benefit from UHC by 2024, and advancing the Sustainable Development Goal of securing health and well-being for all, at all ages, by 2030.

The writer is WHO Regional Director - South East Asia Region. Views are personal

Published on April 26, 2019

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