University health hubs can help us meet the Sustainable Development Goals

Universities can play a key role in meeting Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being.

Universities can play a key role in meeting Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being. Image: REUTERS

Ruma Bhargava
Lead, Mental Health, World Economic Forum
Victoria Galan-Muros
Chief of Research and Analysis, International Institute for Higher Education, UNESCO
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SDG 03: Good Health and Well-Being

  • Meeting Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3: Good Health and Well-being, will require and benefit from extensive involvement of the education sector.
  • Both physical and mental well-being are key to meeting this Goal, and universities can play a pivotal role in pushing research forward while also acting as physical and mental health hubs.
  • An additional 15 million health workers are needed by 2030, and universities must be part of the mass-scale effort to train this global cohort of healthcare workers.

Health and education are deeply entwined. Educated people are more likely to notice when they are sick, more likely to seek out health care services and are better informed about diseases in general.

If the world is to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3: Good Health and Well-being, it is clear that a multidisciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach that accounts for education is needed.

Higher education institutions, such as universities, are focal points of humanity's progression and collective advancement, and they can play a central role in meeting SDG 3.

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The COVID-19 pandemic claimed the lives of 115,500 front line health workers worldwide. Not only is this a tragic loss of life on a mass scale, but it is also a warning. An additional 15 million health workers are needed by 2030. This acute shortage is the result of chronic under-investment in education and training of health workers and the mismatch between education and employment strategies in health systems.

Universities care already key hubs of learning, particularly when it comes to educating women. 70% of the health and social workforce are women, so investing in them presents an opportunity to create decent employment opportunities.

Preventing health crises through education

It is almost certain that the world will experience more health emergencies or pandemics. But strengthening healthcare education can create a cadre of ‘first responders.’

Already, many universities run paramedic courses, but more courses and diplomas are needed that touch all aspects of health care and bridge the health workforce divide.

Basic emergency health and first aid courses can be introduced for students and accredited by organizations like the Red Cross or Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. This training would not only be invaluable during a national or global health crisis but will also help the students to respond to immediate health needs in their families and local communities — both in the developed and developing world, where healthcare is either inaccessible or unaffordable.

Roughly 80% of medical education is focused on biology — but 60% of premature deaths are the result of “non-biological” factors. A “Health Systems Science” should be a third pillar of medical education, co-equal with basic and clinical medical sciences. It should accounts for population health, health policy, healthcare delivery systems and interdisciplinary care.

Students can also learn about health systems beyond their geographies through exchange programmes, such as the International Federation of Medical Students Associations, Asian Medical Students Exchange Program and Feinberg School of Medicine can provide students with exposure to health systems beyond their geographies.

Preserving mental and physical well-being

Good health is not just the absence of disease, but a state of physical and, importantly, mental well-being. Every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide. One billion people worldwide live with a mental disorder — close to 50% of these cases manifest as early as 14 years of age.

When it comes to young people, universities are often the place where anxiety, depression and substance abuse emerge. They are the institutions that mold the youth into physically and mentally healthy global citizens. Universities can promote cultures of community and well-being through courses and training for students and staff. They can offer course credits to promote well-being on campuses, for cycling to university, for example.

Drexel University’s Recreation Center has a private mental-health kiosk open to anyone with questions or in need of advice. Visitors receive information regarding additional mental health resources and support, as needed. This Way Up, a collaboration between the World Health Organization and University of New South Wales, helps students better understand their emotions and connect with clinicians who can supervise their progress, as well as offering free online self-help courses.

Universities as social innovation hubs

Social Innovation (SI) university-based hubs can serve as cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral platforms to improve health coverage.

Many universities are already acting as eco-system enablers of SI in healthcare delivery. By leveraging the existing research capacity present within these institutions and combining it with start-up support, universities can quickly become hubs of social innovation.

Studies suggest that universities can catalyze social innovation in lower- and middle-income countries, and a number of projects are already underway in in the developed world, too.

US-based universities with programmes at the forefront of precision medicine research include Columbia University and the University of California San Francisco. For telehealth courses, Cornell University’s Cornell Health and Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center are excellent examples.

Educated people are better informed about diseases, take preventative measures, recognize signs of illness early and they tend to use health care services more often. Better education for women tends to result in better health outcomes for them and for their children and accelerates their countries’ transition to stable population growth. More educated young people are more willing to control family size and invest in the health and well-being of their offspring. These impacts are particularly strong for women. Education is a way to protect young people from engaging in risky behaviours.

We must accelerate progress towards SDG 3. It is time for policymakers, autonomous bodies and public and private institutions to create convergent strategies for education and health that are “glocal” — global approaches with local solutions. Any solutions must take into account diversity, equity and inclusion.

It is not only time to accelerate the nexus of healthcare and education, but also to compound the progress already made by carving out strategies that further integrate the two fields, in pursuit of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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