Health Systems Strengthening

A girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo {Photo credit: Warren Zelman}Photo credit: Warren Zelman

All involved with women’s health and gender wish that access to quality health care for women and girls was easy to achieve at scale. But the attitudes and expectations of many societies limit women’s and girls’ access to resources and skills associated with better health. And health-related vulnerabilities and poor outcomes for women and girls have social and financial costs that hamper the consistency and quality of available health services. 

To advocate for universal health coverage (UHC), and help countries achieve this worthy goal, health leaders, managers, and those who govern must work to end social biases and gender-based discrimination--whether deliberate or unintended. 

Among other things, health leaders must support the hiring and promotion of women; advocate for gender-sensitive employment and working conditions; help to reduce women’s out-of-pocket healthcare payments (that are generally higher than men’s due in part to the high costs of newborn deliveries and reproductive health services); adjust clinic hours to accommodate women and girls’ mobility constraints; and consider how even unexpected health provider bias can make female clients hesitate to seek the services they need in a timely fashion. 

Richard Horton moderates a panel on post-2015 development goals. {Photo credit: HSR-Symposium.org}Photo credit: HSR-Symposium.org

Last month, I joined over 1,800 participants from more than 100 countries in Beijing at the Second Global Symposium on Health Systems Research. We've made some concrete steps forward since we last met in Montreux, Switzerland, two years ago, among them the launch of a new research society Health Systems Global. Central topics of this year's discussions included: “Inclusion and Innovation towards Universal Health Coverage” (UHC), the symposium theme, and monitoring and evaluation.

Togolese health hut. {Photo credit: S.Holtz/Peace Corps.}Photo credit: S.Holtz/Peace Corps.

The World Health Statistics 2012 report released this year reveals a mixed bag of amazing progress and underachievement.

The report --- the World Health Organization's (WHO) annual compilation of health-related data for its 194 Member States --- includes a summary of the progress made towards achieving the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and associated targets.

Countries have achieved amazing success in some areas and little or no progress in others. Here are some highlights:

Three women gather outside a Tanzanian health center. {Photo credit: M. Paydos/MSH.}Photo credit: M. Paydos/MSH.

The 65th World Health Assembly is convening this week in Geneva, beginning May 21. For six days, the Assembly will focus the world’s attention on chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs), universal health coverage, mental disorders, nutrition and adolescent pregnancy, among other health issues.

This is the second time in less than a year that chronic NCDs --- such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and lung diseases --- are in the international spotlight. Last fall, the High Level Summit on Non-Communicable Diseases convened in New York, when, for only the second time in the history of the United Nations, a high level summit focused on a global health concern.

A woman and baby rest at St. Josephs' Health Center -- the only health institution in Abricots, Haiti. {Photo credit: MSH.}Photo credit: MSH.

Suzanna Ile, a 26-year-old woman from South Sudan, lost her first two babies in childbirth. Suzanna did not have a nurse or midwife to tell her that her pelvis was dangerously small for childbirth; nor was there a safe place for a caesarian section even if she had known the risk.

Suzanna’s experience is typical of what women have faced in South Sudan, the newest country in the world. South Sudan is home to 10 million people, spread across an area about the size of France. The people have experienced civil war off and on for five decades --- hardly anyone remembers a time without conflict. In places like the capital city of Juba, the infrastructure has been seriously damaged. The conflicts have devastated the economy and disrupted the education system.

South Sudan has some of the worst health indicators in the world. Health facilities are grossly understaffed as health workers fled the country: only ten percent of staff positions are appropriately filled. There are less than two doctors for every 100,000 people. A woman in South Sudan is five-hundred-times more likely to lose her life giving birth than a woman in Europe. Forty-five percent of children suffer from physical stunting due to malnutrition.

Women and child in Tambura, South Sudan. {Photo credit: MSH.}Photo credit: MSH.

Nearly 50 countries, including Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia and South Sudan, are considered a fragile or conflict-affected state -- a state that is in conflict, recovering from conflict or crisis, or a state that has collapsed or has a strong and repressive government. Over nearly 40 years of working in fragile states, Management Sciences for Health (MSH) has identified best practices, lessons learned, and appropriate interventions for a myriad of situations in fragile states.

MSH takes an integrated approach to building high-impact sustainable public health programs that address critical challenges in leadership, health systems management, health service delivery, human resources, and medicines. Wherever our partnerships succeed, the positive impact of good health has a ripple effect, contributing to the building of healthy nations.

MSH works collaboratively with health care policymakers, managers, providers, and the private sector to increase the efficacy, efficiency, and sustainability of health services by improving management systems, promoting access to services, and influencing public policy.

(Left to right) Aaron Musiimenta, assistant regional behavior change communication officer; Tadeo Atuhura, STRIDES for Family Health communications specialist; Dr. Baseka Yusuf, district health officer; and Kevin Kisembo, principal nursing officer and STRIDES focal person. Kasese, Uganda. {Photo credit: Margaret Hartley/MSH.}Photo credit: Margaret Hartley/MSH.

The Kasese district in western Uganda is nestled between two national parks. Located hours from the capital city, Kampala, the region attracts tourists to view gorillas and mountain birds.

During my recent trip to Uganda, I met with Dr. Yusuf Baseka, the district health officer of Kasese, who described the health challenges his district faces, and his hopes for the future.

Although the national parks are beautiful and bring a much needed economic boost to the area, they also offer a challenge, Dr. Baseka explained.  The population growth and fertility rate of the district are very high. With the two national parks, there is no land for expansion. The town of Kasese is rapidly becoming a slum with unsanitary conditions that are difficult to address.

Another challenge in his district is that children are not going to or staying in school. They are leaving secondary school early and engaging in risky sexual behaviors. He explains, “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in young mothers, under 18 years, some as young as 12.” Their pregnancies offer unique challenges for the health system to address.

Video that highlights the work of thousands of Tanzanians---mostly women---working as accredited community drug sellers operating in rural areas.Video that highlights the work of thousands of Tanzanians---mostly women---working as accredited community drug sellers operating in rural areas.

Today is International Women’s Day, celebrated around the world as an opportunity to look back on women’s accomplishments and look forward to the realization of their full economic, political, and social rights. The United Nations theme for this year, “Empowering Rural Women,” is one that resonates powerfully with MSH’s work.

A midwife in Wau, South Sudan. {Photo credit: MSH.}Photo credit: MSH.

Josephine, a wife and mother of six living in rural Uganda, tried to soothe her 3-year-old daughter. The girl was suffering from diarrhea and a high fever and her crying filled the home. Recognizing that the girl's health was in danger, Josephine summoned the courage to ask her husband for permission to take their second-youngest child to the local health facility unit -- and pleaded for money to cover the travel and treatment expenses.

Requesting permission from her husband to travel to the facility was not her only choice, however: choosing to take her daughter for treatment also meant leaving her other children -- including her youngest -- unattended at home. Once at the health center, she continued to navigate the challenging road to treatment for her daughter, communicating her situation to the health providers and negotiating the financial and provider aspects of the health center system, without assistance. Relieved and exhausted, Josephine returned home safely with her daughter, oral rehydration salts, and knowledge.

Recognizing women leaders

What makes a person in the health system a good leader? Who determines that he or she is a leader? How do we empower leaders to improve the health of those around them?

Lelo PHCU staff treat the young patient. {Photo credit: MSH.}Photo credit: MSH.

"Diktor! Diktor!" The urgent call for a doctor came from several school boys who had run to the facility. I glanced over and saw a boy about 12 years old tensely sit down in the waiting patio at Lelo Primary Health Care Unit in South Sudan.

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