Elise Mann, Joining Vision and Action

I’ve had asthma for as long as I can remember, and it’s become worse as I’ve grown older, which culminates in chest colds anytime I get sick, semiregular respiratory infections, and a bout of pneumonia that made one semester of university very difficult. Despite my challenges with my respiratory system, I’ve always had access to well-trained doctors and well-stocked medications, which have allowed me to pursue academic and professional opportunities, and even climb many of Colorado’s famous mountains. This is in stark juxtaposition with a friend who lived in a rural community in Uganda and died from an untreated case of pneumonia.

April 7 is World Health Day, which celebrates the importance of each individual’s and each nation’s health and wellbeing. Launched in 1950 to celebrate the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO), the day is used each year as an opportunity to highlight a theme important to global health. Previous years have highlighted diabetes; international health security; food systems; and, most recently, depression. This year’s theme is universal health coverage (UHC).

Health is a fundamental human right that encompasses an individual’s and a community’s ability to live a safe, healthy and happy life. A major difference between my friend and me? I am a young, white American woman living in a busy urban setting within the United States, while my friend was a young Ugandan woman living in a remote rural community; my access to care was different from hers.

Universal Health Coverage

The promise of UHC is that of access for all to quality health services when and where needed without causing undue financial hardship—using healthcare services should not push one’s family further into poverty. Access to care should not be affected by where you are from or where you live; thus the WHO’s hashtag, #healthforall. World leaders agreed to pursue UHC when they signed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015, and this April 7, we are reminded of this promise. Although the United States helped to shape the SDGs and faces its own challenges in implementing them, the U.S. healthcare system is beyond the scope of this blog post.

As Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO has said, “No one should have to choose between death and financial hardship. No one should have to choose between buying medicine and buying food.” This choice is what UHC aims to end.

Building on the successes of the Millenium Development Goals, which guided development efforts around the globe from 2000–2015,  the SDGs are the current guidelines for the global community to end poverty, ensure prosperity and build equality by 2030. Goal 3 is to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”—with UHC established as an effective strategy. For the SDG target to be achieved by 2030, one billion people need to benefit from UHC by 2023, five years from now.

WHO’s definition of UHC includes all aspects of the health system: legislation, governance, financing mechanisms, information systems, health facilities, communications networks, a trained health workforce and systems that deliver health services to people.

It is estimated that half of the world’s population, over 3.5 billion people, are unable to access health services. Further, over 800 million people are forced to spend at least 10% of their household income to pay for catastrophic care. Healthcare should work to alleviate poverty rather than perpetuate it, yet costs for healthcare are forcing 100 million people into extreme poverty.

Improving health has ripple effects throughout communities and nations. Not only will UHC create a standard of high quality, affordable healthcare—which can improve overall health, life expectancy and maternal mortality— but numerous other benefits are inherent. When people spend less time being sick, they can spend more time at school or at work. Improving health can also reduce poverty, lower the risk of hunger, drive job creation that can spur economic growth, and even enhance gender equality. Further, improving the national healthcare system can also strengthen a country’s resilience and ability to react quickly to epidemics.

No One Size Fits All

Earlier this year, I conducted over 15 hours of phone interviews with Colorado-based experts in health literacy, equity and social determinants of health as part of my role at Joining Vision and Action. During these conversations, I felt both aware of the complexity of the challenge ahead and inspired by the many dedicated individuals who are working hard each day to make life easier to navigate, both within and outside of the doctor’s office. While a daunting challenge, it is one that many on the front lines of healthcare delivery are facing head-on. But the health challenges facing Denver and Colorado are different from those of different communities and states across the country.

Of course there are no simple fixes for health system challenges. Critical investments in healthcare and the infrastructure that supports healthcare systems can save lives. Around the world, countries have made different strides toward universal coverage, and while progress is needed, it will look differently depending on the context.

Your Turn.

  • Take care of your health and the health of those around you.
  • Find out more about universal health coverage. Start here.
  • Advocate for what your community needs to create better health. Engage with community groups, churches, schools and local clubs to raise awareness about the issue.
  • Engage with your government and hold your politicians accountable. Call now. Not only should you be calling to share what your community health needs are, but also tell your politicians that you support funding for USAID and foreign aid. When the U.S. funds global health, other countries do too.
  • Listen to what civil society actors, activists and healthcare providers from different countries describe as what they think would work for their communities and their nations, and use your voice to amplify that message.

Each time I need my inhaler, I’m reminded how lucky I am to have access to one. So I invite you to celebrate health, not just today, but every day.