Health and Healthcare Systems

Why health ministers must be at the forefront of global healthcare processes

hospital ward - health

Health ministers are agents of change; the more effective they are, the greater the change. Image: Unsplash/Levi Meir Clancy

Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Health and Healthcare

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare
  • As the World Health Organisation’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, which takes place this week in Geneva, is at the forefront of tackling global health-related challenges.
  • Mirroring the WHA’s current priorities, the World Economic Forum has several primary action areas for its workstreams during 2024 and 2025: antimicrobial resistance, climate and health, digital health, health equity, and women’s health.
  • Through its multistakeholder approach, the Forum’s Centre for Health & Healthcare is helping to strengthen the knowledge and understanding of the health ministers and ministries with which it works.

All for health, health for all. That’s the theme of this year’s World Health Assembly’s annual meeting. It encapsulates the central problem facing all health systems – and, by extension, the ministers who direct them – that every individual should have equal access to the health services they require without financial hardship. The truth is that very few people do.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a transformative force for healthcare systems, both positively and negatively. On the positive side, it accelerated the development of vaccines, fostered the creation of alternative care models, and spurred the digitalization of health services. However, it also unleashed a host of challenges.

It disrupted universal health coverage, disproportionately affecting low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), triggered a mass departure of healthcare workers, and wreaked havoc on families and societies with its toll on lives and resources.

Health ministers are agents of change; the more effective they are, the greater the change. Typically, however, health ministers face a raft of challenges, blunting their effectiveness. Health portfolios are often under-resourced in terms of funding and personnel.

Compared to their ministerial counterparts, the health minister typically has less influence and power, resulting in health needs slipping down the list of priorities in the face of mounting geopolitical and economic challenges. And yet, health ministers should be at the forefront of setting and championing health policies on the pressing challenges of our day

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As the World Health Organisation’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly (WHA) is at the vanguard of tackling global health-related challenges. It has enjoyed marked success since its inception, notably in eradicating smallpox and polio and facilitating the collaboration required to develop and distribute vaccines for malaria and COVID-19.

The WHA is currently turning its attention to continued work in the field of immunisation and pandemic preparedness, as well as improving maternal health, addressing antimicrobial resistance (AMR), climate and health issues, and finally, workforce health, the progress on which then affects health-related elements of the SDGs.

The organization operates at the direction of its member states. Still, it is important to note that its mandate has grown disproportionately large in relation to its funding, potentially affecting its longer-term ability to deliver.

This is vital to understand because it means that some of the support to effect change needs to come from elsewhere, most obviously through the health ministers of WHA member states and through the type of collaboration and knowledge sharing that the World Economic Forum and its stakeholders can offer.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

Governments often view the likes of health, education, housing, transport, or the green transition as conflicting priorities when, in fact, they should be viewed holistically as drivers of health and invested in as such.

On a broad level, we need to think about why healthcare is not better prioritised in different situations globally and how the situation can be changed. This may, in turn, provide the answers and solutions to the dilemma of the health minister, who faces the same problems at a ministerial level.

The crux of the issue is that health ministers make decisions affecting all societal sectors and, ultimately, a country’s prosperity. Therefore, health ministries must be adequately resourced, and their ministers must be given the agency and knowledge to effect change.

No ‘one size fits all’ approach will eradicate the world’s health and healthcare provision problems, but all would benefit from stronger collaboration, dialogue, and shared best practices.

Through its multistakeholder approach, which naturally provides a range of perspectives on an issue, the World Economic Forum’s Centre for Health & Healthcare helps to strengthen the knowledge and understanding of those health ministers and ministries with which it works. In doing so, it seeks to propel the global health agenda and accelerate the progress of health-related SDGs.

Mirroring the WHA’s current priorities, the Forum has several primary action areas for its workstreams during 2024 and 2025 – AMR, climate & health, digital health, health equity and women’s health. These are vital areas in need of further attention and action, without which health services globally will face increased challenges and costs.

AMR offers a good example because as antibiotics and antimicrobial drugs prove increasingly ineffective against infection, mortality rates will increase, hospital stays lengthen and healthcare costs rise, potentially reaching trillions of dollars by 2050. To address this, health ministers must be given the agency to champion multifaceted policies, but they need support to achieve this.

The Forum is dedicated to strengthening continued collaborations between government – and with them, their health ministers – and business to improve access to healthcare worldwide. A prime example of how it supports knowledge sharing between the public and private sectors is the Forum’s support for the Global Alliance for Women’s Health, which, on the sidelines of the WHA meeting, launched the Cervical and Breast Cancer Coalition in collaboration with Kenya’s Ministry of Health.

Highlighting how health ministers can be empowered with greater knowledge and expertise, the coalition will provide ministers and their teams with access to expert partners and resources to help identify gaps and challenges and then step in to support health strategy. Incidents of regional best practice can then be shared and scaled up, where appropriate.

Everyone deserves quality, affordable, accessible healthcare products and services, and healthcare services deserve the resources and agency to offer this. By better supporting health ministries and strengthening the role and position of health ministers, we can create a virtuous circle in which health is prioritised, accelerating progress in tackling local and global health challenges.

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