How can countries make progress towards UHC?

Many countries are already making progress towards UHC. All countries can take actions to move more rapidly towards it, or to maintain the gains they have already made. In countries where health services have traditionally been accessible and affordable, governments are finding it increasingly difficult to respond to the ever-growing health needs of the populations and the increasing costs of health services.

Moving towards UHC requires strengthening health systems in all countries. Robust financing structures are key. When people have to pay most of the cost for health services out of their own pockets, the poor are often unable to obtain many of the services they need, and even the rich may be exposed to financial hardship in the event of severe or long-term illness. Pooling funds from compulsory funding sources (such as mandatory insurance contributions) can spread the financial risks of illness across a population.

Improving health service coverage and health outcomes depends on the availability, accessibility, and capacity of health workers to deliver quality people-centred integrated care. Investments in quality primary health care will be the cornerstone for achieving UHC around the world. Investing in the primary health care workforce is the most cost-effective way to ensure access to essential health care will improve. Good governance, sound systems of procurement and supply of medicines and health technologies and well-functioning health information systems are other critical elements.

What is primary health care?

Primary health care is an approach to health and wellbeing centred on the needs and circumstances of individuals, families and communities.  It addresses comprehensive and interrelated physical, mental and social health and wellbeing.

It is about providing whole-person care for health needs throughout life, not just treating a set of specific diseases. Primary health care ensures people receive comprehensive care, ranging from promotion and prevention to treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care as close as feasible to people’s every day environment.

WHO has developed a cohesive definition of primary health care based on three components:

  • ensuring people’s health problems are addressed through comprehensive promotive, protective, preventive, curative, rehabilitative, and palliative care throughout the life course, strategically prioritizing key system functions aimed at individuals and families and the population as the central elements of integrated service delivery across all levels of care;
  • systematically addressing the broader determinants of health (including social, economic, environmental, as well as people’s characteristics and behaviours) through evidence-informed public policies and actions across all sectors; and
  • empowering individuals, families, and communities to optimize their health, as advocates for policies that promote and protect health and wellbeing, as co-developers of health and social services through their participation, and as self-carers and care-givers to others.

Primary health care is the most efficient and cost effective way to achieve universal health coverage around the world.

To meet the health workforce requirements of the Sustainable Development Goals and universal health coverage targets, over 18 million additional health workers are needed by 2030. Gaps in the supply of and demand for health workers are concentrated in low- and lower-middle-income countries. The growing demand for health workers is projected to add an estimated 40 million health sector jobs to the global economy by 2030. Investments are needed from both public and private sectors in health worker education, as well as in the creation and filling of funded positions in the health sector and the health economy.

UHC emphasizes not only what services are covered, but also how they are funded, managed, and delivered. A fundamental shift in service delivery is needed such that services are integrated and focused on the needs of people and communities. This includes reorienting health services to ensure that care is provided in the most appropriate setting, with the right balance between out- and in-patient care and strengthening the coordination of care. Health services, including traditional and complementary medicine services, organized around the comprehensive needs and expectations of people and communities will help empower them to take a more active role in their health and health system.

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