universal health coverage
Subsidized health insurance is unlikely to lead to Universal Health Coverage (UHC); insurance coverage doesn’t always improve financial protection and when it does, doesn’t necessarily eliminate financial protection concerns; and tackling provider incentives may be just as – if not more – important in the UHC agenda as demand-side initiatives. These are the three big and somewhat counterintuitive conclusions of the Health Equity and Financial Protection in Asia (HEFPA) research project that I jointly coordinated with Eddy van Doorslaer and Owen O’Donnell.
As we all now know, UHC is all about ensuring that everyone – irrespective of their ability to pay – can access the health services they need without suffering undue financial hardship in the process. The HEFPA project set out to explore the effectiveness of a number of UHC strategies in a region of the world that has seen a lot of UHC initiatives: East Asia. The project pooled the skills of researchers from six Asian countries (Cambodia, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam), several European universities and the World Bank.
Nobody likes to be stung. Doctors regard it as unethical. Publishers say it betrays the trust of their profession. But the fact is, as three recent studies have demonstrated, sting operations can be extremely effective at exposing questionable professional practices, and answering questions that other methods can't credibly answer.
Sting #1: Are open-access journals any good?
Much of the world has gotten fed up with the old academic publishing business. Companies like the Anglo-Dutch giant Elsevier and the German giant Springer earn high profit margins from their academic journals (Elsevier earns 36% profit, according to The Economist), through a mix of ‘free’ inputs from academics (the article itself and the peer-review process) and high (and rapidly rising) subscription charges that impede access by academics working in universities whose libraries can’t afford the subscriptions. Of course, many of these universities paid for the authors’ time in the first place, and/or that of the peer-reviewers; tax-payers also contributed, by direct subsidizing universities and/or by the research grants that supported the research assistants, labs, etc. Unsurprisingly, libraries, universities, academics and tax-payers aren’t happy.
I've been blogging a bit about Universal Health Coverage (UHC) recently. In my "old wine in a new bottle" post, I argued that UHC is ultimately about ensuring that rich and poor alike get the care they need, and that nobody suffers undue financial hardship from getting the care they need. In my "Mrs Gauri" post, I used my colleague Varun Gauri's mother as a guinea pig to see whether the general public feels that UHC is a morally powerful concept and whether it could be expressed in a way that the general public would find accessible.
My sense from Ms Gauri's comment on the post, is that the answer to both questions could well be Yes. So far so good.
Some bad news—resources are finite
But before we place orders for colorful placards and huge banners with my suggested slogans "Everyone should get the care they need!" and "End impoverishment due to health spending!", we should break some bad news to Ms Gauri and the rest of the general public: resources are finite, and especially in poor countries the available resources won't allow us to get to UHC anytime soon.
In a recent blogpost I asked whether Universal Health Coverage (UHC) is old wine in a new bottle, and if so whether that’s so bad.
I argued that UHC is ultimately about making sure that “everyone – whether rich or poor – gets the care they need without suffering undue financial hardship as a result.” I suggested UHC embraces three important concepts:
• equity: linking care to need, not to ability pay;
• financial protection: making sure that people's use of needed care doesn't leave their family in poverty; and
• quality of care: making sure providers make the right diagnosis, and prescribe a treatment that's appropriate and affordable.
I had been warned—I found it hard to believe—that WHO ministerial meetings can be rather dull affairs of little consequence. Ministers typically take it in turn to read their prepared speeches; their fellow ministers appear to be listening attentively through their headsets but some, it seems, have been known to zap through the simultaneous translation channels in search of lighter entertainment. Speeches aren’t played over the loudspeakers for fear of waking jetlagged ministers from their afternoon naps. WHO is a very considerate organization: it likes to make sure that while on its premises visitors reach “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
Well I’m happy to report that last week’s ministerial meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC)—held in Geneva on February 18-19, jointly organized by WHO and the World Bank, and attended by delegates from all over the world (see map)—didn’t fit the stereotype.
It's easy to see how the concept of universal health coverage (UHC) became so elusive.
At the start, the idea must have seemed straightforward enough. Lots of countries "covered" only part of their population, and several were making efforts to expand coverage to "uncovered" populations. China, for example, started out on this process in 2003, trying to expand coverage to the rural population that lost coverage when the old rural cooperative medical scheme collapsed following the de-collectivization of agriculture in 1978.
In the developing world, a hospitalization is one of the things that families – especially poor ones – fear most. This came through in country after country in the World Bank’s Voices of the Poor exercise. Here are just some examples:
A man from Ghana is quoted as saying: “Take the death of this small boy this morning, for example. The boy died of measles. We all know he could have been cured at the hospital. But the parents had no money and so the boy died a slow and painful death, not of measles, but out of poverty.”
The researchers write that in Lahore, Pakistan, “a father explained that it had taken him eight years to repay debts acquired after he, his wife, and two of their children had been hospitalized.”
While we non-physicians may feel a bit peeved when we hear “Trust me, I’m a doctor”, our medical friends do seem to have evidence on their side. GfK, apparently one of the world’s leading market research companies, have developed a GfK Trust Index, and yes they found that doctors are one of the most trusted professions, behind postal workers, teachers and the fire service. World Bank managers might like to know that bankers and (top) managers come close to the bottom, just above advertising professionals and politicians.
Given the trust doctors enjoy, the recent brouhaha over allegations of low quality among some of the social science articles published in medical journals must be a trifle embarrassing to the profession. Here’s the tale so far, plus a cautionary note about a recent ‘systematic review’.
In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a growing clamor for a global commitment to universal health coverage (UHC). You might have seen the recent special issue of the Lancet on “the struggle for UHC”. Inevitably, accompanying this clamor, there’s been a lot of wracking of brains on how to measure progress toward UHC. With the excitement of a new political agenda, there’s understandably a desire to carve out a new measurement agenda too. While not wanting dampen people’s enthusiasm for the UHC cause, I would like us to reflect whether on the measurement agenda we’re building enough on what’s been done before.