The author with colleagues after touring a health facility in Turkey, June 2013. Also available in Turkish
Two days after joining the World Bank, I traveled to Turkey to attend the government’s ministerial meeting on universal health coverage (UHC), which corresponded with The Lancet publication of an independent 10-year assessment of Turkey’s Health Transformation Program (HTP).
Europe and Central Asia
Возможно, эта информация осталась для вас не замеченной, но этой зимой Россия совершила важнейший прорыв к улучшению состояния здоровья населения страны, заслуживающий самой высокой оценки: в стране принят федеральный закон, запрещающий курение в общественных местах и ограничивающий продажу сигарет. Таким образом, Россия присоединилась к многочисленным странам, в которых борьба с курением отнесена к первоочередным задачам здравоохранения.
image Wikimedia Commons
You might have missed it over the winter, but Russia achieved an important public health milestone that deserves applause: It enacted a national law that bans smoking in public places and restricts cigarette sales, joining a growing number of countries in making tobacco control a health priority.
The policy victory was a long time coming.
I am partway through a trip to the countries of the South Caucasus (Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia), where winter is settling in—snow in Tbilisi and Yerevan, and a raw wind on Baku’s seafront.
It is a diverse region at the proverbial crossroads, but one common trait is a bleak health financing environment. All three countries rely on out-of-pocket (OOP) expenditures for about two-thirds of total health spending, well above their peer groups, including other countries of the former Soviet Union or middle-income countries around the world. As a result, the incidence of “impoverishing” and “catastrophic” health spending by households—both common indicators of financial protection—are among the highest in the world. Besides costing some households dearly, OOP expenditures also keep many others away from the hospital or clinic: Utilization rates are among the lowest in Europe and Central Asia.
How did the Caucasus become such OOP outliers? The proximate causes are clear enough: large formal or informal payments for health care and high prices and overconsumption of pharmaceuticals. Many of these issues, in turn, can be traced to low levels of government spending on health, around 1.8% of GDP in all three countries, roughly half the regional average. Health spending is low as a share of government budgets, as well. As a result, providers recover costs directly from patients, and can have more latitude to engage in rent-seeking in the absence of stronger pooling and purchasing mechanisms.
It’s hard to say with much precision. Or at least that’s one of the main impressions you get when scanning a 2010 report on OECD health system institutional characteristics. The results are from a survey of 29 mostly high-income countries, based on responses to 81 questions about their health systems, including various aspects of financing, coverage, service delivery organization and governance. It is proving to be a useful reference point as we undertake a stock-taking of reforms across Europe and Central Asia.
The fact that there are many varieties of advanced health systems is hardly surprising, of course, but it runs much deeper than the old Beveridge vs. Bismarck dichotomy. How countries approach issues like coverage rules, facility ownership status and provider payment methods cannot be neatly divided into two groups. Once you look across a large number of characteristics and countries, similarities would seem to be the exception, not the rule.
I was in Tbilisi last week for the launch of Georgia’s new five-year health strategy, "Affordable and Quality Health Care," the first strategy since 1999. It’s a milestone in the country’s ambitious health reform program, summarizing what has been achieved, the challenges ahead, and options to address them. And more importantly, the strategy reflects the government’s commitment to continue redesigning the health system and improving the health status of the population through the adoption of multisectoral actions.
The Georgians should be proud. Since 2006, the government has radically transformed the health system, moving rapidly from a budget-funded direct provision of medical care in public facilities to subsidizing health insurance premiums for the poor. Private health insurance cum services providers, who are increasingly operating as integrated health management organizations, are delivering services in the benefit plan. The initial results are promising: Health insurance coverage has risen steadily from about 2 percent to 40 percent of the population, and out-of-pocket health care expenditures among the poor have been decreasing, particularly after a basic drug benefit was added to the health insurance plan.
You may say that the Georgian experience is nothing new because many countries across the globe have adopted or are adopting similar arrangements—and some countries have more to show. However, this experience shows us how unwavering leadership is a key to persevering on the sometimes rocky path of health system reform.
My recent work in Azerbaijan convinced me that reforming medical and public health education programs is critical to revamping clinical processes and public health practices for effective prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases and injuries. In this small Caspian Sea country, improving physicians, nurses and public health specialists’ educational programs—which are hampered by outdated conceptual and methodological structures and practices—is starting to receive priority attention in the country’s quest to improve health system performance.
The challenge is shared globally, as different countries are struggling to sufficiently staff their health systems with well-trained, deployed, managed and motivated physicians and nurses to provide quality medical care, and competent staff to manage service delivery and carry out essential public health work such as disease surveillance.
With few exceptions, such as the 2010 Lancet commission report*, medical, nursing and public health education reform has failed to appear in the international health agenda—yet we continue to focus on employment and remuneration of existing personnel. This has to change. Why? Simply because the adoption of and adaptation to local conditions of new knowledge, country experiences and good practices help accelerate social and economic development.
Also available in: Русский
On recent visits to Moscow and Tbilisi, and driving from Baku to the Sheki and Agdash regions in Azerbaijan, I observed challenges and progress in making roads safer. Why should this matter to public health folks? Or should this be only the concern of engineers?
If one of the goals of development is to improve health outcomes by reducing premature mortality, injuries and disability, then unsafe roads are a key public health challenge.
In Eastern Europe and Central Asia (ECA) the problem is acute. Road traffic deaths rank among the ten leading causes of death: people are 2-3 times more likely to die from road injuries than people in Western Europe. For every death, many more people have injuries that require medical care.
What is causing this problem? For sure, more people are driving because the number of cars has increased significantly due to rising incomes—the traffic jams in some ECA cities vividly reflect this change. Poor road conditions and spotty enforcement of speeding, drunk driving, and seatbelt and helmet laws are leading culprits. “Distracted driving,” due to the growing use of cell phones and texting, is also resulting in more car crashes.
Some countries of the former Soviet Union, the so-called CIS countries, are facing difficult challenges to achieve the HIV/tuberculosis-related Millennium Development Goal (MDG 6) by 2015. The continuing growth of new HIV cases, insufficient access to prevention services and treatment for people living with HIV, combined with the severity of region’s tuberculosis (TB) epidemic (particularly multi-drug resistant TB) are major challenges.
On October 10-12, 2011, the Russian government, along with UNAIDS, the Global Fund, and the World Bank, is hosting in Moscow a high-level forum to discuss these challenges and ways to reach MDG 6 in the CIS. (Click here for a video, a presentation, and more from the forum.)
Unless concerted action is taken, sustained political commitment mobilized, new public/private and civil society partnerships established, and a sharp improvement in the effectiveness of HIV and TB programs realized, MDG 6 risks not being achieved. So, what to do?