On September 23 in New York, world leaders will meet for the first-ever “UN High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC),” where they intend to adopt a Declaration setting ambitious goals to improve global health. The latest draft Declaration identifies steps to tackle the real barriers standing between patients and the treatments they need. It also emphasizes the need for governments to secure adequate and sustainable funding for the health care of their citizens and reaffirms the importance of private sector research in achieving UHC.
Why is the UN High-Level Meeting on UHC important? Today more than half of the world’s population lacks access to even the most basic and essential health services. This meeting is an opportunity to set goals to help the more than one billion people with unmet health needs.
In negotiating the political Declaration for the UN High-Level Meeting, delegates appropriately focused on the most pressing barriers standing between patients and health care – such as inadequate health financing, weak health care systems, poor health infrastructure and inadequate primary care.
A closer look at the impact of these barriers reveals the need for solutions. Take infrastructure, for example. A World Bank survey of six Sub-Saharan African countries found that 148 million people have no access to road networks. In some less-developed regions of Asia, 46 percent of the population lacks access to any roads in even “fair condition.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) further estimates that each year 25-50 percent of critical vaccines never make it to patients because of poor or inadequate supply chains. And, according to the most recent projections, by 2030 there will be a shortage of 18 million trained health care professionals—a staggering number considering that research has found that 63 percent of child deaths in some regions could be prevented through better access to trained primary health care workers.
For the international community to achieve meaningful progress towards realizing UHC, addressing these obstacles must be central to the conversation. And governments need to find better and more sustainable ways to overcome them and invest in the health of their citizens.
The political Declaration planned to be adopted at the UN High-Level Meeting appropriately emphasizes these themes. For example, it commits countries to pursuing “efficient health financing policing…to respond to unmet needs and to eliminate financial barriers to access to quality, safe, effective, affordable and essential health services, medicines, vaccines, diagnostics and health technologies…” It also pledges to “expand the delivery of and prioritize primary health care as a cornerstone of a sustainable people-centered, community-based and integrated health systems and the foundation for achieving universal health coverage…”
Throughout the document, the Declaration underscores the vital role of the private sector – and private sector-led research and development – in helping achieve UHC. For example, it recognizes the need for “partnerships with the private sector” and calls for “building constructive engagement and a stronger partnership with relevant stakeholders, including industries, [and] the private sector…” In a key section, the Declaration also refers to the “important role played by the private sector in research and development of innovative medicines.”
Unfortunately, there were proposals to use this Declaration to undermine the intellectual property rights that incentivize the discovery of more effective and efficient ways to treat disease. In the end, all countries agreed to include language that recognizes “the need for appropriate incentives in the development of new health products.” This reflects the insight that health innovation is essential to achieving UHC.
This Declaration is only just a start. Ensuring the world’s population has access to universal health care is a vast goal—and the barriers are complex. With real commitment from all international stakeholders, we can find collaborative and sustainable solutions to achieve UHC by 2030. Leaders at this month’s UN High-Level Meeting must not miss this opportunity—the health of billions around the world depends on it.