Global Health

Overdue yet within reach: sustainable health systems that put people first

Care workers and residents of the Scisset Mount Care Home react during the last day of the Clap for our Carers campaign in support of the NHS, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Huddersfield, Britain, May 28, 2020.

Better coordinated care for older people is one of the pillars of more resilient healthcare systems Image: REUTERS/Molly Darlington

Francesca Colombo
Head, Health Division, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
Helen E. Clark
Chair, Lancet Countdown High-Level Advisory Board on Health and Climate Change
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Global Health

This article is part of: Sustainable Development Impact Summit
  • Investing in public health delivers significant economic dividends.
  • COVID-19 has exposed the stresses and weaknesses of health systems.
  • A new series of blog posts will explore how to overhaul health systems.

Our healthy future cannot be achieved without putting the health and well-being of populations at the centre of public policy.

Ill-health worsens an individual’s economic prospects throughout the lifecycle. For young infants and children, ill-health affects human capital accumulation. For adults, ill-health lowers quality of life and labour market outcomes, and disadvantage compounds over the life course.

And, yet, with all the robust evidence available that good health is beneficial to economies and societies, it is striking to see how health systems across the globe struggled to maximise the health of populations even before the COVID-19 crisis. It's a crisis that has further exposed stresses and weaknesses of health systems. These must be addressed to make populations healthier and more resilient to future shocks.

Each one of us, at least once in our lives, is likely to have been frustrated with care that was inflexible, impersonal, and bureaucratic. At the system level, these individual experiences add up to poor safety, poor care co-ordination, and inefficiencies - costing millions of lives and enormous expense to societies.

Such state of affairs contributes to making the progress towards achieving the sustainable development goals to which all societies, regardless of their level of economic development, have committed, too slow.

Many of the conditions that can make change possible are in place. For example, ample evidence exists that investing in public health and primary prevention delivers significant health and economic dividends. Likewise, digital data and technology have made many services and products across different sectors safe, fast and seamless. There is no reason why, with the right policies, this should not happen in health systems as well. Think, for example, of the opportunities to bring high-quality and specialised care to previously underserved populations. COVID-19 has accelerated the development and use of digital health. There are opportunities to further nurture their use to improve public health and disease surveillance, clinical care, research and innovation.

To encourage reform towards health systems that are more resilient, better centred around what people need, and sustainable over time, the Global Future Council on Health and Health Care has developed a series of stories illustrating why change must happen, and why this is eminently possible today. While the COVID-19 crisis is severally challenging health systems today, our healthy future is, with the right investments, within reach.

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