Universal Health Coverage: What does it mean?
According to WHO, universal health coverage means that all people have access to the health services they need (prevention, promotion, treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care) without the risk of financial hardship when paying for them.
This requires an efficient health system that provides the entire population with access to good quality services, health workers, medicines and technologies. It also requires a financing system to protect people from financial hardship and impoverishment from health care costs.
Access to health services ensures healthier people; while financial risk protection prevents people from being pushed into poverty. Therefore, universal health coverage is a critical component of sustainable development and poverty reduction, and a key element to reducing social inequities.
Universal coverage is firmly based on the WHO Constitution of 1948 declaring health a fundamental human right and on the Health for All agenda set by the Alma-Ata declaration in 1978. Equity is paramount. This means that countries need to track progress in providing access not just across the national population but within different groups (e.g. by income level, sex, age, place of residence, migrant status and ethnic origin)
Universal health coverage is not something that can be achieved overnight, but all countries can take action to move more rapidly towards it, or to maintain the gains they have already made.
Essential health services (including for HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, non-communicable diseases and mental health, sexual and reproductive health and child health) should be available to all who need them.
The dilemma for most countries, in particular low-income countries, is that they are not able to provide everyone with all the health services they need at an affordable price, even with the large increases in external donor assistance for health since 2000.
The goal should be to provide an increasing number of health services over time while at the same time reducing out-of-pocket costs to patients. Decisions about the services that can be guaranteed to the population initially, and which ones should be added over time, are based on peoples’ needs, public opinion and costs.
The priority should be to ensure access to the key interventions targeting the health Millennium Development Goals – births attended by a trained health worker, family planning, vaccinations, and prevention and treatment of diseases such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis – while considering how to address the growing problem of noncommunicable diseases.