An estimated 400 million people do not have access to basic health care services. That’s about 1 in every 16 people who cannot visit a hospital or clinic to have their blood pressure measured, or learn how to properly care for their child with diabetes.
Universal health coverage lies at the core of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for health, aiming to close gaps in access and make sure that everybody benefits from high-quality health care, reducing the risk of catastrophic financial harm as a result of seeking health services. With the adoption of the SDGs in September of this year, there can be no doubt that this UHC Day, Dec. 12, comes at a time when the cause has never been higher on the global health agenda.
The promise of UHC remains a significant challenge for many countries. Serious gaps in health infrastructures and the health workforce, fragile economies, and high burdens of disease remain as obstacles, particularly in least developed countries, many of them in Africa.
Facing the challenges
Reaching UHC targets is all the more challenging due to the rise of noncommunicable diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory diseases. UHC and NCDs are interlinked: success or failure to meet the UHC targets will in large part depend on how we address NCDs, and a UHC-based health system will in turn ease NCDs management.
The research-based pharmaceutical industry supports UHC and has been committed for the long haul in addressing NCDs. Today, the legacy of medicine from the previous 20 years of research and development for treating NCDs is considerable; as a result, many effective treatments exist, widely available and at low cost. Yet, making sure these treatments reach all patients in need remains a big challenge.
The availability of treatments is influenced by many factors, including hurdles in setting up secure and efficient supply chains, distributing medicines without compounding markups, capacity building among health care workers for timely screening and diagnosis of NCDs, and setting up large-scale health care interventions. These are all key elements to adequate treatment and prevention of NCDs and attaining UHC.
Strengthen existing systems
As an industry, we are involved in a number of health partnerships to strengthen health care systems and increase availability of treatment for NCDs. This includes trainings for health care workers, such as the Merck Capacity Advancement Program for better diabetes prevention, diagnosis and care in a number of African countries; access to medicines partnerships such as AstraZeneca’s Heart Healthy Africa, for wider distribution of medicines for hypertension patients in Kenya; and innovative partnerships to expand primary health coverage in underserved communities, such as Novartis’ Group Social Business.
Another key area to increase the availability of medicines is to speed up the process by which they become available. This requires streamlining regulatory policies, making sure taxes and tariffs are not disproportionate and addressing distributions inefficiencies. Hefty markups along the wholesale supply chain are common. Therefore, our industry works to support regulatory harmonization and remove unnecessary hurdles across low- and middle-income countries, and to support governments, wholesalers, and health care professionals in strengthening the supply chain of medicines, such as trainings from Sanofi on supply chain management in Morocco.
In addition, our sector supports in the implementation of a core set of healthcare interventions that are feasible and with significant global health impact, the best buys. For example, our work with PAHO Foundation to raise awareness and empower women to seek breast and cervical cancer screening and early detection services, and improving the quality and completeness of cancer data and reporting to inform cancer control plans.
There is plenty of work to be done, and the extent of these challenges require more than ever sharing of collective expertise. That is why this year our sector has updated and broadened the scope of its Framework for Action for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases.
First launched following the U.N. High Level Summit on NCDs in 2011, the new NCD framework provides 10 principles as a checklist of how and where the pharmaceutical industry intends to work on reducing the impact of NCDs to global health and society as a whole. The overarching principle? Promoting partnerships as a crucial enabler of innovation, patient empowerment, capacity building and the availability of medicines — elements at the heart of achieving UHC.