Universal Health Care: a vision and long-term thinking

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Medicine Cabinet

A NUMBER of important global issues took center stage during the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. These concerns revolved around security, the economy, poverty eradication, the environment, gender equality, international law, and disaster resilience. With all these high priority global issues and concerns, a topic that pervades them all is health.

At the UNGA, world leaders reiterated their commitment to attain Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by 2030 as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). UHC is based on the conviction that health is a right, not a privilege. It is anchored on the belief that it is a moral obligation to ensure all individuals get quality care, and that UHC is a strategic objective to build healthier societies.

UHC means access to quality health services for all without suffering financial hardship. Unfortunately, it is estimated that at least 400 million people have no access to essential health services, and 40% of the world’s population lack social protection, resulting in financial catastrophe for many. Around the world, at least 100 million people are pushed into poverty by paying for health care out of their own pockets.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that behind these numbers are real stories of young mothers dying in childbirth because they lack access to health care; young children dropping out of school due to family impoverishment caused by poor health and accompanying expenses; and fathers suffering from chronic non-communicable diseases and not getting treatment.

In his speech at the UNGA side event on UHC, Dr. Tedros called on the global community to never again allow and accept these sad realities. He is convinced that regardless of economic status, health care for all is possible.

Dr. Tedros recounted his encounter with a young medical student with kidney failure in the Dominican Republic, who told him he needs dialysis three times a week. When asked about his treatment cost, the student did not have any idea because the government pays for it. Without any treatment, he would not have been able to pursue his career of helping others.

As the story of the medical student shows, UHC is beyond health outcomes. UHC has the immense potential of fueling social and economic development for individuals and societies.

An article published in the recent Lancet Global Health journal reveals that countries can move towards UHC despite low levels of national income. Given the examples of many countries that implemented UHC even at different levels of economic development, the WHO Director-General said that the move is more a political than an economic challenge. Simply put, there are no more excuses as all countries can move towards UHC, no matter their national income.

It has been estimated that 85% of the costs of meeting the SDG health targets can be met with domestic resources. These investments would mean 8.4 more years of life expectancy and prevent 97 million premature deaths between now and 2030.

Dr. Tedros concluded his UNGA speech by reiterating that UHC is a political choice. Beyond patchwork measures that offer temporary gains, leaders must have the “vision, courage, and long-term thinking.” In return, UHC offers to be the better option for societies to be “safer, fairer and healthier.”

Medicine Cabinet is a column of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), representing the research-based medicines and vaccines sector in the country. The author is the executive director of PHAP. E-mail the author at