News / Health

WHO: People Needing Health Care Should Not Go Broke

Four-year-old Niuniu, who has late-stage neuroblastoma, a malignant cancer of the nervous system, receives an ultrasound at the Shanghai Children's Hospital in Shanghai, May 30, 2013.
Four-year-old Niuniu, who has late-stage neuroblastoma, a malignant cancer of the nervous system, receives an ultrasound at the Shanghai Children's Hospital in Shanghai, May 30, 2013.
Lisa Schlein
The World Health Organization says everybody should have access to the health care services they need without risking financial ruin.  This year’s World Health Report urges countries to provide universal health coverage tailored to their peoples’ specific needs. 

In 2005, all 194 member states of the World Health Organization committed themselves to achieving universal health coverage.  However, relatively few countries have achieved this goal and most people in the world have to pay out of pocket for the health care they need.

WHO says services provided by universal health coverage should include prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care. Coverage should encompass health care in communities, health centers and hospitals. 

Since health needs differ from one country to another, the report says each nation must create a system of universal health coverage specifically tailored to its needs. 

Christopher Dye, lead author of the report, is director of WHO's Office of Health Information, HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases.

He said countries must invest in local research to know what kind of universal health coverage would work best for them.  For example, he said nearly half of all HIV-infected people eligible for anti-retroviral therapy are receiving it.  But, he said research is needed to determine how the other half will be eligible to receive this life-saving treatment. 

“Let me give you another example with respect to the way in which people pay for health care," he said. "Every year approximately 150 million people in the world suffer catastrophic health expenditure.  That is they have to pay out of their own pockets for health care to a degree that they cannot possibly afford.  So, how do we put in place mechanisms for financial risk protection, which will ensure that catastrophic health expenditures are reduced to a minimum?” 

The report shows how research can help countries develop a system of universal health coverage that addresses their health issues and ensures their citizens can obtain the services they need without suffering financial hardship. 

The U.N. health agency said research should be done in low- and high-income countries because the poorer countries have special problems they have to work out for themselves. It says answering these questions is not a luxury but a necessity.

The thorny question of how countries can finance universal health coverage, especially during a time of economic austerity, runs throughout this report.  

Dr. Dye noted a number of northern European countries have made the decision to continue supporting their social and health services during this period of financial distress. He said this decision is paying off in better health for their people.

“Saving money on health care is often a false kind of economy.  If you save money on health care in the short term, you may end up spending more in the long term.  So, cutting the cost of health budgets is not an enlightened policy,” he said.  

Acknowledging escalating costs, Dr. Dye said provisions for health care must be made within a limited budget during times of relative financial stability, as well as of economic austerity.  He said governments need to make greater effort to reign in run-away expenses and make health care services more cost-effective and beneficial.

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