• Self-care is not a replacement for health systems - but it is a way to support those systems as we rebuild them post-COVID-19.
  • It can reduce pressure on health services and improve health outcomes for vulnerable people.
  • Here are three insights from a recent pan-industry discussion.

Even before COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) predicted that if the world continued on the same trajectory, less than half of the world’s population will have access to basic and essential healthcare services by 2030 – and that there will be an estimated shortage of 18 million health workers.

Now more than ever, creative solutions to rebuilding health systems are required – and this includes ‘self-care’. Self-care is not ‘no-care’; it is not about replacing health systems, it is about protecting them and should be seen as an essential part of the healthcare continuum.

The pandemic means more people now have direct experience of self-care, whether they have had to take their own test at a mobile clinic, seek advice through telemedicine or a pharmacy service or wear a face-mask to go shopping. COVID-19 has also spurred "the largest and fastest shift in consumer behaviour in modern history". This has included substantial changes in the consumption of health and lifestyle products.

Life-sciences company Bayer recently hosted an online discussion with the social impact-focused network Business Fights Poverty to explore how wider uptake of self-care can reduce pressure on strained health systems and improve vulnerable people’s health outcomes.

Here are three insights from the discussion:

1. Fostering self-care can be beneficial for both individuals and economies

The Global Self-Care Federation highlighted that the cost savings associated with self-care are beneficial to the whole of society – to the patient, the healthcare system, and the broader economy. Here are a few of those savings:

Europe: moving 5% of prescribed medications to non-prescription status across Europe would result in estimated total annual savings of more than €16 billion ($19 billion).

United States: Every $1 spent on over the counter (OTC) medicines saves the US healthcare system more than $7.

Latin America: $3 billion is spent on treating non-serious conditions by the region's public health systems.

For individuals, COVID-19 has shown the importance of self-care, with hand-washing and mask-wearing remaining the most effective options to reduce infection. There has been a growing role for community pharmacies and healthcare clinics in providing people with both medications and vaccines, but also access to primary care services – a trend that is also expanding into the retail space. More broadly, self-care interventions give users greater choice, access, control, satisfaction and affordable options to manage their healthcare needs. Self-care can recognize the strengths of individuals as active agents in their own healthcare, and not merely passive recipients of health services.

2. Improvements in tech, public policy and communication can help us overcome the barriers to self-care

Self-care is not new, but despite widespread consensus on its role in the healthcare continuum, and a WHO definition, it has not become as embedded in health systems as it should be. COVID-19 is the moment to change this.

Three areas were cited in the discussion as being key to unlock self-care’s potential: technology, public policy, and communication.

i) Babylon Health described how their model of ‘digital first’ healthcare reduces two fundamental healthcare costs - salaries of health workers and the ‘sick-care’ culture. The use of AI can ensure that medical professionals can spend their time doing what machines can’t. And their use of ‘prediction’ can help prevent minor problems growing into much larger and more expensive ones.

ii) Gillian Christie of the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health noted that when it came to public policy one of the biggest challenges in the US was the separate funding mechanisms for healthcare and social services – and that self-care is most effective when it is integrated into public health systems. This requires ‘whole of government’ approaches.

iii) Communication was viewed as key, both to better explain ‘self-care’ itself but also to inform behavioural change. Education campaigns focused on explaining why, what and how to do self-care are critical to building trust among people. Organizations like the UK’s Self-Care Forum were cited as useful national-level bodies to promote and disseminate information, research and campaigns about self-care.

3. Involving stakeholders and building cross-sector collaborations are essential to support the self-care movement

Austen El-Osta from Imperial College London highlighted that whilst there is a huge amount of activity in the self-care movement, much of it is fragmented. He noted that "there is a need to bring self-care groups and champions together to establish what the World Health Organisation is calling a ‘self-care community of practice’”.

Participants also emphasised that more cross-sector collaborations and enhanced multi stakeholder engagement are critical developments that can help to widen and strengthen the self-care movement. Margaux Yost, who leads Business for Social Responsibilities workplace health programmes in East Africa, explained that self-care cannot be achieved in silos. After all, increased demand from patients (through increased knowledge) also requires increased access to the right products and services (supply).

In conclusion, global health systems are under unsustainable pressure. An ageing population, increasing number of lifestyle-related diseases and rising costs are inhibiting healthcare access for more and more people, leaving the world’s underserved communities vulnerable and taking a particularly hard toll on women and children. Expanding access to self-care builds a healthier future for the next generation, lowers costs, and offers a lifeline to communities where self-care is both the first and last option for healthcare.