Health Systems Strengthening

Health Systems Strengthening (HSS)

Millions of people around the world die each year from preventable diseases because they cannot access affordable health care. Developing countries often struggle with insufficient resources and they face numerous challenges trying to strengthen weak health systems. A strong health system working well at all levels, from the household to the community to health facilities to national authorities, can provide effective services to improve the health of the people they serve.

Health financing is the critical foundation for strengthening health systems and ultimately for achieving health impact. Health financing is the starting point – money is the fuel to start and keep a strong health system running. Health financing includes generating funds, distributing those funds, ensuring effective and efficiency use of funds, and protecting the poor from the financial hardship of accessing health services. Without financial resources and proper management of these resources, health workers, health facilities, and medicines would not exist. In difficult economic times, generating those resources seems an insurmountable task. Yet some countries are showing how it can be done.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently endorsed a new and novel rapid test for tuberculosis (TB), especially relevant in countries most affected by the disease, and is calling for widespread use of this test and its incorporation into national plans.

MSH applauds the research and development experts who developed this new TB test and the WHO for endorsing it so quickly. The test could revolutionize TB care and control by providing an accurate diagnosis in less than two hours, compared to current tests that can take up to three months to produce results.

Evidence suggests that use of this test could result in a three-fold increase in the diagnosis of patients with drug-resistant TB and a doubling in the number of HIV-associated TB cases diagnosed in areas with high rates of TB and HIV. Finally, the test is easy and safe to use and also allows for testing in non-health facility settings, including in people’s homes.

The Global Health Initiative (GHI) and its approach of integrating health programs with HIV & AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, maternal, newborn, and child health, nutrition, and family planning and reproductive health is in line with the current approaches and health priorities of the Government of Malawi.

Malawi, with a population of slightly over 13 million people, has 83% of its people living in the rural hard to reach, underserved areas. The biggest health challenge facing the country is access to basic health services by the rural population. The problem of access to health services is multifaceted. For instance, family planning services are mostly facility-based, contributing to a low Contraceptive Prevalence Rate of 28% and high unmet family planning need of 28% (Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, 2004).

However, there is also a critical shortage of trained health service providers and availability of contraceptives is a logistical nightmare in Malawi. Making a routine mix of all contraceptives accessible to women of reproductive age regularly in rural communities can avert unwanted pregnancies and maternal deaths, and reduce high total fertility rate and infant mortality rate. Rural people walk long distances to seek health services, sometimes only to return without a service due to shortage of health personnel and stock-out of supplies.

Health Clinic in Southern Sudan

 

For the past week, we in Southern Sudan have crowded polling stations to vote on a referendum that, if passed, would declare Southern Sudan the world’s newest nation. Observers have declared the voting “broadly fair,” and the 60 percent voter turnout required for the vote to pass has been reached. We are optimistic that this referendum will bring us closer to a peaceful, prosperous future.

The mood in Juba (the capital city of Southern Sudan) is bright as we await the results of the polls, set to be announced February 1. But our government and people realize that secession will bring new challenges along with its opportunities. About 150,000 of our Southern Sudanese brothers and sisters have returned home in recent weeks and still more are expected. While we welcome them joyfully and are delighted to see extended families reunited, this great influx of people will put additional strain on a health system that already struggles to meet the needs of the people it serves.

Health Workers in Southern Sudan

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Southern Sudan. For over five decades, Southern Sudan endured civil war, unrest, and several waves of forced displacement and refugees. The infrastructure of nearly every sector was mostly destroyed throughout the region. It is a classic fragile state situation.

Since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed five years ago, the Government of Southern Sudan, donors, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, private organizations, and, most importantly, health workers are coming together to rebuild a shattered health system.

Now the global community focuses attention on Southern Sudan as they prepare for a Referendum vote to decide if they will officially break away from Northern Sudan to become an independent state. The vote is scheduled to begin January 9, 2011.

At the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Montreux, Switzerland in November, Dr. Yogesh Rajkotia, of USAID Rwanda, moderated a panel discussion noting that Performance-Based Financing (PBF) is an effective health systems strengthening strategy. The presentations were made on behalf of the Rwandan Ministry of Health with the guidance of Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, Permanent Secretary.

In 2000, Rwanda’s health system was perceived as weak: there were human resources shortages, especially in rural areas; poor quality of services; and a high morbidity/mortality rate of women and children. Since 2001, Rwanda has committed itself to better health and to pushing for achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by 2015.

PBF is a powerful means for increasing the quantity and quality of health services by providing incentives to health providers to improve performance. A PBF program typically includes performance-based grants or contracts. Health clinics and their staff are rewarded for reaching or exceeding health indicators.

This blog post was co-written with Morsi Mansour. Joan and Morsi are leadership development specialists in MSH’s Center for Leadership and Management.

Students in Uganda participate in a leadership development program during their pre-service medical training.

How can we empower the front-line of health care managers and service providers in the developing world?

As the Leadership, Management and Sustainability Program completes five years, it is an important moment to sum up what we have learned about sustainability and to reflect on how local ownership of health improvement programs supports sustainability of health results.

Halida Akhter receiving the United Nations Population Award in 2006.

Bangladesh, which is situated in a resource poor setting with a population of over 150 million, faces the major health challenge of a high maternal mortality rate. In the 1970s, the maternal mortality rate was 700 deaths per 100,000, and now it is still at 320 per 100,000. Although Bangladesh has made progress in reducing its infant mortality, much progress needs to be made to reach the Millennium Development Goals for maternal mortality. Bangladesh will need more than five years to achieve the goals. The Global Health Initiative (GHI) will help address the major health challenges women face in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has successful models of collaboration and public-private partnerships to share with other countries.

There have been a collection of high-profile and well attended mobile health (mHealth) “summits” held around the world in the past few years, including last month’s second annual mHealth Summit in Washington, D.C. (headlined by Bill Gates and Ted Turner), but the really interesting conversations are happening on the African continent. While large providers in the “developed world” are talking about the need for business plans and analysis, the debate in Kenya and Nigeria and Ghana is on how country-based leadership can scale up proven programs, develop sustainability, and provide practical and integrated models for cooperation between the government, mobile service providers, the medical community and the private sector.

On this World AIDS Day, we reflect yet again on progress made toward global commitments to fight the HIV epidemic. According to UNAIDS, new infections have decreased this past year from 2.7 million to 2.6 million, but, 30 years into the epidemic, only 5.2 million people out of the estimated 15 million who need drugs have access to treatment. Stigma, discrimination and human rights violations against persons living with HIV still exist, even in countries with generalized epidemics.

Integrated HIV programming across the entire health system can minimize many of these barriers to HIV prevention, care and, treatment.

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