What is universal health coverage?

Universal health coverage means that everyone has access to quality health services that they need without risking financial hardship from paying for them.

This requires a strong, efficient, well-run health system; access to essential medicines and technologies; and sufficient, motivated health workers.

The challenge for most countries is how to expand health services to meet growing needs with limited resources.

Why is research important for universal health coverage?

Despite a multinational commitment to universal coverage, there are many unsolved questions on how to provide access to health services and financial risk protection to all people in all settings.

Currently most research is invested in new technologies rather than in making better use of existing knowledge. Much more research is needed to turn existing knowledge into practical applications.

Many questions about universal coverage require local answers (e.g. how the system should be structured, health-seeking behaviours, how to measure progress). All countries need to be producers of research as well as consumers.

Three examples among many in the report to help progress towards universal health coverage

Bednets reduce child deaths

Surveys in 22 African countries showed that household ownership of at least one insecticide-treated mosquito net was associated with a 13-31% reduction in the mortality of children under five years of age.

Cash payments improve child health

Review of evidence from 6 countries found that conditional cash transfers, in which cash payments are made in return for using health services, resulted in an 11-20% increase in children being taken to health centres and 23-33% more children making visits for preventive healthcare.

Health care is affordable for ageing European populations

Between 2010 and 2060, the estimated annual increases in health expenditure due to ageing will be less than 1% and falling in five European countries. While the number of older people suffering chronic diseases and disability is expected to grow, the costs of health care were found to be substantial only in the last year of life.

What is needed now?

The World health report 2013 calls for:

  • Increased international and national investment and support in research aimed specifically at improving coverage of health services within and between countries.
  • Closer collaboration between researchers and policymakers, i.e. research needs to be taken outside the academic institutions and into public health programmes that are close to the supply of and demand for health services.
  • Countries to build research capacity by developing a local workforce of well-trained, motivated researchers.
  • Every country to have comprehensive codes of good research practice in place.
  • Global and national research networks to coordinate research efforts by fostering collaboration and information exchange.

Beverly Cook, Managing Director of international healthcare provider, Expacare commented:

“Today’s World Health Report 2013 highlights the need for quality healthcare across countries around the world and it is encouraging to see that there is growing investment in healthcare research. However we are a long way off a universal standard and this has important implications for businesses that have international aspirations. Our “Anatomy of an International Business” research found that three fifths of SMEs (64%) believe doing business overseas is set to become commonplace, indicating more Britons will be moving abroad to work.

“The health of overseas staff should be a top concern for businesses. However our research found employers have differing attitudes towards health insurance provision for their employees with over three in 10 (33%) stating that it is a personal choice for employees and nearly a quarter (24%) saying they would like to provide it but cannot afford to. Surprisingly, employers also revealed a lack of clarity when it comes to providing healthcare cover. Almost one fifth (16%) think that travel insurance will cover their staff for health provision when working overseas, and one in ten employers (10%) think that there is no need in the EU for health insurance provision

“If businesses do decide to grasp the international opportunity, they need to thoroughly research the healthcare systems overseas before sending employees abroad to work. It is essential that employers provide their staff with the best quality international private healthcare insurance possible to ensure they are protected when they are moving abroad.”