Western Pacific falls short on universal health coverage

Philippine hospital
Copyright: Panos

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  • Over half of the population in Western Pacific lacks essential health services
  • Governments need to invest in health care as a matter of policy
  • High income countries do not necessarily have good health coverage

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[MANILA] While 17 out of 27 Western Pacific Region economies report improvements in achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC), experts say more needs to be done.
As the world marked the annual World Health Day on 7 April, the WHO (World Health Organization) regional office for the Western Pacific in Manila released and made available online the 2018 UHC data from 27 out of the 37 economies in the region.

Vivian Lin, health systems director at WHO, says up to half of the population in the region lack essential health services.“This means in some countries in the region, women are not having access to basic health services like family planning, people are not being immunised or having access to improved sanitation,” Lin explains.

She says that the study is “about identifying the gap, it’s also about knowing what the countries need to prioritise and how to act on this information”. 

“It is the middle-income countries that have serious questions because of insurance cost and high out-of-pocket payments”

Vivian Lim, WHO

Lin says governments need to invest in health care access given that many families are pushed into poverty by paying for it out of their own pockets. “We need to make governments include investments in health as part of their policies,” she stresses.
She emphasises that governments need to have laws aimed at achieving improvements in reproductive, maternal and new born child health (RMNCH), infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases and service capacity and access.
Olivia Lawe Davies, WHO regional communications manager, says high-income countries do not necessarily have improved health coverage. “In a high-income country such as Japan where the per capita income is US$38,894, the financial risk protection is just about the same as that of an upper medium-income country such as Vietnam at US$2,186,” she explains.

Lin notes that while the cost of health maintenance is not much of a concern for high-income countries, “it is the middle-income countries that have serious questions because of insurance cost and high out-of-pocket payments.”

According to Lin, there are no common set of recommendations that can be applied in order for laggard countries to catch up on providing adequate UHC.

“Measures that should be taken depend on country specific context and health system. Some may need to focus on improving service capacity, quality and access while other countries may need to focus on reducing the proportion of the population suffering from financial hardship,” she says.
For instance, in the Philippines, while coverage of essential services “is slightly below the regional average”, there is “high coverage for RMNCH services and for communicable disease prevention, compared to other countries in the region,” says Gundo Weiler, WHO country representative. 
Australia, compared to other countries in the region, has high coverage of essential services and low health financial burden. The same is true for Fiji, Malaysia, and Mongolia.
 This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.