ECOSOC Panel: Science, Technology, Innovation Essential For Universal Health Coverage

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A United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) panel discussion on universal health coverage (UHC) on 3 July highlighted the importance of science, technology and innovation for achieving UHC, especially in the context of the post-2015 development agenda. Speakers discussed the meaning and scope of UHC as well as the financing and promotion of UHC in various country contexts.

Following panel presentations, open discussion involved the exchange of good practices in various countries. Mexico, Turkey, Japan, European Union, Sierra Leone, Brazil, United States, Ghana, Venezuela, Colombia and Thailand all made interventions. There was agreement on a “no one-size-fits-all” approach to universal health coverage. Rather, approaches should be country-specific, taking into account local circumstances and conditions.

According to sources, Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman, vice-president of ECOSOC, opened the panel by pointing to the potential for science, technology and innovation to improve health systems and the delivery of healthcare, even in rural and remote areas. Steadfast in his commitment to explore ways to include UHC on the post-2015 UN development agenda, Osman said ECOSOC could serve as a platform for dialogue and for the promotion of partnerships.

Suwit Wibulpolprasert, senior advisor on the Disease Control at the Ministry of Public Health in Thailand, moderated the panel. He said that the aim of this session was to link UHC to technology and innovation, and requested the panellists to speak candidly without pre-written text, the sources said.

World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan pointed to political commitment, investment, clear policy goals and tracking mechanisms as necessary conditions for UHC, said the sources, but also emphasised state ownership in developing and implementing UHC. She argued that each state should develop its own healthcare system according to the needs of its population. Fellow panellist Sania Nishtar, president and founder of Heartfile, a non-profit think tank that focuses on health systems in Pakistan, later echoed this sentiment.

Equitable and efficient healthcare financing would require strong political will and technical know-how, said Timothy Evans, director of health, nutrition and population at the World Bank, the sources said. Again emphasising the country-specific nature of UHC, Evans said every country needs to identify its own path moving forward.

The complex nature of providing UHC also was discussed in the context of the informal sector. Chan said that the informal sector is very important and more work to promote cooperation and experience-sharing is necessary to identify this large population.

Ali Mukti, vice-minister of health for Indonesia, reiterated the importance of identifying the number of people in the informal economy, the sources said. Though a large percentage of the informal sector is covered in Indonesia, the matter of access by those people in the informal sector and whether their coverage should be covered by the government is still debated. One of the problems is that the collection mechanisms for the payment of premiums are often expensive. Mukti said consensus on health and other public policies is a challenge. National leadership political commitment is essential, but Mukti also urged international organisations to provide technical assistance.

Providing perspective from the private sector, Florence Gaudry-Perkins, international director of global government and public affairs at Alcatel-Lucent, brought up the matter of mobile phone technology as a pervasive technology with significant capabilities. According to the sources, she explained that access to health, especially in rural areas, remains a challenge and mobile health and technology could help alleviate this problem. Gaudry-Perkins said that social models that involve the health sector to increase and expand the use of technology would allow for technology and innovation to make a big difference in achieving UHC.

When asked by the moderator how to stimulate research and development, and how to allow people to access them, Chan pointed to incentives for innovation, research and development. She said that no major breakthrough, such as the introduction of vaccines, is possible without innovation. However, Chan also noted that innovation has become expensive, at the cost of access for most people. Chan mentioned social value mechanisms as a way find solutions.

On the matter of social innovation Chan remarked that often innovation is thought of as sophisticated science, but looking forward, the future of healthcare should be people-centred, integrated and based on primary healthcare and prevention.

Philippe Meunier, ambassador for the fight against HIV/AIDS and communicable diseases in France, said that they should no longer be cautious when it comes to innovation because UHC transcends health itself and is a central matter for sustainable development. The sources said Meunier encouraged innovative arrangements for financing of healthcare since it is a key factor in the eradication of poverty.

The Economic and Social Council reconvened on 4 July for a thematic debate on the contribution of the ECOSOC to the elaboration of the post-2015 development agenda.

Brittany Ngo is currently completing her Master’s in Health Policy and Global Health at the Yale School of Public Health and previously obtained a Bachelor’s of Arts in Economics from Georgetown University. Through her studies she has developed an interest in health-related intellectual property issues. She is a summer intern at Intellectual Property Watch.

Brittany Ngo may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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