The link between strong health systems and prevention
The detrimental issues within health systems in developing countries have become intrinsic to their model, with lack of funding and resources, as well as systemic issues, causing inequality in access to care.
These disparities mean a significant portion of individuals cannot obtain even basic healthcare services or commodities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), this number equals to at least half of the world’s population.
Addressing global health inequities has been a point of focus in the past years, with an increase in resources from donors and more attention than ever being given to the development of the health infrastructure.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals, the WHO’s Triple Billion targets, UNICEF’s Strategy for Health 2016-2023 and The Global Fund’s Resilient and Sustainable Systems for Health (RSSH) strategy are just some examples of how we are endeavouring to move towards a better future for healthcare.
However, there is a long way to go before health systems in developing countries become strong enough to adequately cope with the varying needs of their populations, and a major issue has been the lack of focus – and investment – in preventative resources.
Here, Shameet Thakkar, founder and managing director of Unimed Procurement Services, an organisation working to improve access to healthcare resources in developing countries, discusses the role of prevention in building healthcare resilience for the benefit of vulnerable populations.
What defines a strong health system?
A strong, well-functioning health system needs to adequately cover specific core areas to ensure it is able to efficiently protect and care for its population.
Having a strong infrastructure with a continuous, reliable supply of commodities and a sufficient number of health workers is certainly an important starting point, ensuring the basic needs of the populations are covered at all times.
Quality is a vital factor with regards to both medical products and workers: it is not enough to have an endless supply of medicine if it’s not fit for purpose, or to have a high number of health workers if they are not adequately trained or motivated to care for patients.
A robust health system is one that can rely on funding to support innovation, investment in new technologies, and research and development of existing processes and policies to keep pace with changes in the world.
But most importantly, health systems should be strong enough to be able to cope with the added strain of global health emergencies and public health threats, such as epidemic diseases, regardless of how likely to occur these are. And if there’s something the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s that this is where many health systems fail.
This is where the important role of preventative solutions comes to the fore, representing an invaluable resource for governments and populations, albeit an often underestimated one.
What exactly makes prevention vital in building a strong health system?
Taking the right preventative measures in healthcare means potential health issues are identified before symptoms develop, helping manage or postpone the onset of potential conditions and even prevent them altogether.
Even the simplest preventative resources and procedures, such as cancer screenings and vaccines, can help save lives. But crucially, these can also reduce the need for treatment, which often requires costly medicines.
With a lack of medical commodities and overall funding being an issue in developing countries, focusing on prevention is an effective solution in more ways than one.
Continuing to invest in a healthcare model that centres around treatment is ultimately not going to generate the change we need to see to protect vulnerable populations.
If developing countries can’t justify investment in preventative healthcare when millions are already in need of treatment, then shifting our core focus and rethinking the very structure of healthcare systems is necessary.
Being able to deliver preventative interventions translates to increased stability and durability, factors of importance in future-proofing health systems to ensure governments can tackle emerging threats proactively, instead of reactively.
Building healthcare system resilience for the benefit of populations in need
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how vital the need for resilience is in protecting populations from health crises. And we are still learning from its multifarious impact.
The effects of COVID-19 in developing countries went far beyond those related to the virus itself, with many more individuals being at risk due to existing – and often severe – health conditions, and the overall infrastructural incapacity of their health systems to cope with existing health crises in tandem with the spread of the virus.
The pandemic perfectly exemplified the core issue, with countries with stronger health systems having coped with only relatively minor disruptions, and having now mostly recovered, and developing countries still grappling with its effects years down the line.
With these countries battling life-threatening diseases, such as malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis, as well as often being victim of natural disasters and conflicts, the only solution is to invest in the continuous improvement of existing healthcare issues and crises through prevention.
Systems for health will never be able to effectively protect populations without incorporating prevention as a priority, in turn strengthening health crisis response strategies.