Margaret Chan’s 3 pieces of advice for the global health community

Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of World Health Organization, delivers remarks May 21, 2012, at the opening plenary of the 65th World Health Assembly in Geneva. Photo by: Pierre Albouy / WHO

Is the golden age for health development over? The director-general of the World Health Organization begs to disagree. She believes the best days for health are “ahead of us, not behind us.”

In her opening speech at the 65th World Health Assembly in Geneva Monday (May 21), Margaret Chan acknowledged the first part of the 21st century as the “golden decade” for health. It was a time governments put health at the top of the agenda, money for health development surged, and organizations focused on financing health such as the GAVI Alliance and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria emerged.

But Chan dismissed “bitter observers” who say this golden decade has “come to an end.” She said while money may be scarce at the moment, other factors could drive health’s progress. And she offered three pieces of advice to maintain the momentum: Commit to universal coverage, look to simple innovations and utilize research.

Chan said when governments eye universal coverage, they develop “a thirst for efficiency and an intolerance of waste.” They streamline and integrate health programs, make good use of various health initiatives, and, in due time, save money.

Simple innovations that focus on needs rather than profit are also a must in this time of budget austerity. A simple checklist can already do wonders. The WHO Safe Surgery Checklist introduced in 2008, for example, has significantly reduced surgical errors that kill people worldwide, according to Chan. But while these simple innovations should be low cost, quality should not be compromised.

Chan also highlighted the importance of research, a subject of concern at many nongovernmental organizations. Case in point: International medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières has been urging health ministers attending the assembly to approve the establishment of a “binding” medical research and development convention.

The proposal stemmed from the recommendations made by a group of experts comprising the Consultative Expert Working Group on Research and Development: Financing and Coordination. The group’s report says that such a convention is needed to secure funding for R&D targeting diseases that warrant attention in developing countries.

MSF says current research is geared mainly toward “areas that are most profitable” and designed for rich countries. For example, R&D for drug-resistant tuberculosis or tropical diseases such as Chagas disease, which affect much of the developing world, remains underfunded.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.