Countries across Africa and Asia share many of the same challenges when it comes to providing health services to a growing population. Can they also share some of the solutions, innovations and ideas that would make universal health coverage (UHC) a reality by 2030?
On the side-lines of the 73rd UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, prominent health leaders from around the world came together to speak about the political realities and economic imperatives that shape health outcomes for their citizens. Convened by Amref Health Africa and Takeda Pharmaceuticals, the event brought together key actors from governments, UN agencies, the donor community, NGOs, and the private sector to engage in a lively dialogue on how to make UHC a reality for all.
The event opened with remarks from Dr. Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO of Amref Health Africa and Global Co-Chair of UHC2030, followed by a high-level panel featuring health leaders from Kenya, India and Thailand, and key donors and development partners, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Bank, UHC2030 and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Breakout sessions then created space for fruitful discussions among the meeting participants.
With an estimated 100 million people globally being pushed into poverty each year due to high out-of-pocket payments, it was widely agreed that reaching UHC is not just about expanding access, but also about reducing financial barriers. On the flip side, it is also clear that expanding coverage results in faster and more inclusive growth and prosperity, as has been the case in Japan, China and India. UHC also lowers savings rates – since people no longer expect that a health emergency will become a financial blow – which in turn injects money into the economy.
However, the ambitious goal of achieving UHC globally by 2030 will require more effective partnerships to better mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, and financial responsibilities. H.E. Sicily Kariuki, Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary, stated that “reaching the goal of UHC is all about bold leadership.” Governments, private sector actors, NGOs and community-based organisations that have previously worked in silos need to come together in complementary ways. Dr. Girija Vaidyanathan, Principal Secretary of Health of Tamil Nadu, India, noted that it is especially critical to identify the right spaces where the private sector can accomplish what the public sector cannot, and vice versa.
Achieving UHC will also take dedicated and courageous political leaders listening to community voices. Empowering and supporting communities – and placing the patient at the centre – can lead ordinary people to rally for health as a human right and for health systems that put people ahead of profit.
There was a lot of excitement in the room about the potential of technology. The digital revolution has disrupted music, banking, and agriculture, but has yet to come to medicine in a major way. Technology can help patients play a completely different role in their own care and revolutionise the patient experience. Digital health today already includes digitising information, SMS reminders, connecting health professionals directly to people, and assisting in diagnostics. In the future, human and pathogen genomic information, and big data are expected to create a new generation of health care. While technology is not necessarily a panacea, it can be an important driver of change and improve health outcomes.
Technology can also have large-scale applications in fragile states. Dr. Naveen Rao, Managing Director of Health at the Rockefeller Foundation, raised the example of Yemen, where NASA research satellites were used in 2017 to combat the cholera outbreak. NASA also created a computer model that was able to predict which regions were most likely to be hit by cholera, and the information was used by humanitarian teams to target those areas.
“Japan expanded universal health coverage in the 1960s precisely because we were poor and isolated. Health coverage for all became for us a way of nation building.” Toda Takao, Vice President for Human Security and Global Health, JICA
Following the panel discussion, breakout sessions carried forward the conversation and allowed participants to share practical learnings and insights from their countries on community engagement, social accountability, effective partnerships and the use of technology. Participants left energised by the discussion, inspired to carry forward the momentum into international, regional and national convenings, including the upcoming Africa Health Agenda International Conference (AHAIC) 2019 (5-7 March 2019 in Kigali, Rwanda), the 2019 World Health Assembly and next year’s high-level UNGA meeting on UHC.
Amref Health Africa is grateful to our event partner, Takeda Pharmaceuticals, the distinguished panellists and speakers, and all participants who shared their knowledge and experience from various countries. We look forward to continuing this important discussion on expanding UHC at AHAIC 2019.
Event panelists and speakers:
- Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO, Amref Health Africa and Global Co-Chair, UHC2030
- Edwin Macharia, Regional Director, Africa, Dalberg Advisors
Members of the panel:
- Suwit Wibulpolprasert, Senior Advisor to the Office of the Minister of Public Health, Thailand
- E. Sicily Kariuki, Cabinet Secretary for Health, Republic of Kenya
- Tim Evans, Senior Director of Health, Nutrition and Population, World Bank
- Naveen Rao, Managing Director for Health and Senior Advisor to the President, Rockefeller Foundation
- Girija Vaidyanathan, Principal Secretary of Health of Tamil Nadu, India
- Ilona Kickbusch, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva and Global Co-Chair, UHC2030
- Toda Takao, Vice President for Human Security and Global Health, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)