While large parts of the world are absorbed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its ramifications, an important reality has faded into the background of public discourse: Even before the pandemic, half the global population did not have access to the essential health services they needed. 1 Worse still, 100 million people who did manage to get access to healthcare were driven into poverty each year, as a result of steep out-of-pocket payments.2 Paying tribute to the dire need for accessible and affordable healthcare around the world, the United Nations have anchored the pursuit of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) in their Sustainable Development Agenda 2030, envisioning that “all individuals and communities receive the health services they need without suffering financial hardship”.3
In the past years, we have witnessed selective achievements toward greater healthcare coverage: For instance, Rwanda has expanded its public and community-based health insurance program, now including almost 90% of the population,4 and the United States have extended health care coverage to an additional 30 million Americans through their Affordable Care Act.5 But these improvements in public health are now at risk, as the COVID-19 pandemic shakes up health systems worldwide:
“Collaboration with public and private stakeholders to design new fit for purpose healthcare models enables timely, broad, and sustainable patient access to best available care and innovation.”
At the same time, the crisis may have provided just the momentum needed to accomplish sustainable change for the better. New digital and telehealth technologies are burgeoning, facilitating patient-centric health services from the safety and comfort of everyone’s home; medical advances in mRNA and other precision technologies have been developed and made available in record time through accelerated approval processes; public health literacy and awareness has reached a historical high; and public-private collaboration has intensified, especially where public health services have left gaps. The public and private sector are inextricably intertwined, especially when it comes to solving health problems and the related socio-economic implications it entails. Perhaps it is also no coincidence that the African Medicines Agency has now officially launched its operations in November, after more than a decade of planning.11 The agency now serves to harmonize regulatory requirements, approvals, and quality across the continent – in the hope that health systems become safer, more efficient, and quicker to adopt innovations from overseas.
While local governments are undoubtedly the key gatekeepers of UHC, exerting power over tax revenues and their distribution to health services, safeguarding sustainable access to affordable healthcare takes a village (in fact, a global village). Wholesalers and pharmacies need to ensure reliable supplies of high-quality medicines; hospitals and healthcare professionals need to be sufficiently equipped and skilled to provide standards of care; and digital and data companies need to facilitate data-driven decision-making and cost-efficient solutions.
So, what role can pharmaceutical companies play? With their access to medical innovation and drug supply chain management, their deep scientific and medical knowledge, and their networks of various health system stakeholders, pharma companies are uniquely positioned to promote UHC as part of their wider Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) agenda.
“We believe that taking our responsibility as a partner to healthcare systems and governments is as important as our scientific innovation. Now more than ever, we strive to make healthcare systems strong, resilient, and sustainable.”
Stay tuned for our perspective on how the pharmaceutical industry can contribute to UHC.
Acknowledgments: We are grateful for the many internal and external expert conversations that underpinned the content of this article.
Dr. Lina Reypens and Jonas Grefe also contributed to this article.