Health Inequity

Economic Burden, Economic Development, Government Policy, Health Insurance, Inequality, Poverty

Investing in Healthcare to Put a Dent in Poverty

~Written by Hussein Zandam (Contact:; Twitter: @zandamtique)


Poverty and Healthcare, Two halves. Photo credit: Our Africa

Health and poverty are intricately related. Evidence suggests that there is a positive correlation between health and poverty. People with limited resources in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) are reported to have limited access to healthcare compared to their wealthier counterparts (Wagstaff, 2002). However, other evidence has shown that health expenditure can push households into poverty (Kruk et al, 2009). Tackling either is a priority for governments to improve the welfare of people. The poor are more likely to need healthcare for many reasons including a lack of safe drinking water, a balanced diet, adequate shelter, and protection against harsh environmental conditions. Because of the increased need for healthcare, the poor incur increased spending on already limited resources, and are likely to experience catastrophic expenditure. Reducing healthcare expenditure by the poor has the potential to be a viable mechanism against deepening of poverty.

Reducing extreme poverty is a major goal of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and was also considered in the formulation of the post-2015 agenda. Countries all over the world are grappling with measures to reduce income inequality and poverty. In developing countries, this is more apparent through the increase of micro credit schemes, subsidies, and social safety nets for the most vulnerable. However, evidence has shown that in spite of efforts from nations and development partners, more needs to be done to eradicate extreme poverty (Laterveer et al. 2003). Poverty and access to healthcare have been subjects of research and policy. Poverty can be viewed not only as a conception of material and income deprivation (Deaton and Zaidi, 2002) but also as the lack of opportunities for an individual to lead a life he/she values (Sen, 1999). Using this concept, empowering people to live healthy lives can be seen as an initiative to overcome poverty. However, when poverty is viewed as a deprivation of income and assets, initiatives are channeled that directly improve household expenditure; when in relation to health, initiatives that lower expenditure on health to avoid catastrophic expenditure.

The World Health Organization (WHO; 2000) has advocated for health financing measures that provide financial protection from catastrophic health expenditure. Catastrophic expenditure is a leading cause of impoverishment in many countries. Efforts to prevent catastrophic expenditure oh health have been primarily through insurance. However, in many LMICs it is not effective and/or is beyond the reach of the poor either by being too costly or by not providing adequate coverage (McIntyre, 2006). Thus, the world health report (WHO, 2010) advocated for universal public finance (UPF) as a strategy to promote universal health coverage. UPF means that governments finance interventions for people regardless of who receives it and who provides it. UPF has been in practice in many high-income countries where many necessary interventions are covered. In LMICs however, UPF is limited by targeting a set of interventions tagged as the essential health package, which means many services are excluded and require user payments at the point of care.

For example, extended cost-effectiveness analysis (EECA) was used to assess the effectiveness and reduction in financial risk afforded by a public package of interventions initiated by the government of Ethiopia (Verguet et al, 2015). The interventions examined included services for vaccination, treatment of some conditions, caesarean section surgery, and tuberculosis DOTS. Their analysis focused on UPF where there is no out-of-pocket expenditure to cover costs incurred for each of the nine interventions. They estimated the annual number of deaths averted and the annual total financial protection afforded by the reduction in out-of-pocket expenditure associated with each intervention. The results for intervention costs, health gains and financial protection varied across the interventions but it was concluded that the interventions were cost-effective and prevented cases of poverty among those at lowest income level. Such evidence can be used to convince governments to increase funding of health services with the objective of improving health status of citizens and eradicating extreme poverty among the population.


Deaton, A. and Zaidi S. 2002. Guidelines for Constructing Consumption Aggregates for Welfare Analysis. World Bank. 

Kruk et al. 2009. Borrowing and selling to pay for health care in low- and middle-income countries. Health Aff. 28: 1056–66.

Laterveer et al. 2003. Pro-poor health policies in poverty reduction strategies. Health Policy Plan. 2: 138–145.

Mcintyre et al. 2006. What are the economic consequences for households of illness and of paying for health care in low- and middle-income country contexts? Soc. Sci. Med. 4: 858–865.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1999.

Verguet et al. (2015): Health gains and financial risk protection afforded by public financing of selected interventions in Ethiopia: an extended cost-effectiveness analysis. Lancet Glob Health 2015; 3: e288–96.

Wagstaff, A. 2002. Poverty and health sector inequalities.Bull. World Health Organ. 80: 97–105.

WHO (2000). World Health Report. Health systems: improving performance. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2000.

WHO (2010). World Health Report. Health systems: improving performance. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2010.

Disease Outbreak, Poverty, Political Instability, Health Systems, Economic Development, Infectious Diseases, Healthcare Workforce

Health Issues on the African Horizon for 2015

~ Written by Mike Emmerich - Specialist Emergency Med & ERT Africa consultant (Contact: 

As 2014 draws to a close and we review what has happened over this past year, we also look forward to 2015 and all of it challenges. Numerous organisations and commentators have written of the challenges that lie over the horizon for 2015, as regards Global Health. From my own experience of working on the continent I have identified the following challenges for 2015 for Africa.

Some of the issues/challenges overlap and/or influence one another. They do not stand alone, the one can exacerbate the other.


Water, on its own, is unlikely to bring down governments, but shortages could threaten food production and energy supply and put additional stress on governments struggling with poverty and social tensions. Water plays a crucial role in accomplishing the continent's development goals, a large number of countries on the continent still face huge challenges in attempting to achieve the United Nations water-related Millennium Development Goals (MDG)

Africa faces endemic poverty, food insecurity and pervasive underdevelopment, with almost all countries lacking the human, economic and institutional capacities to effectively develop and manage their water resources sustainably. North Africa has 92% coverageand is on track to meet its 94% target before 2015. However, Sub-Saharan Africa experiences a contrasting case with 40% of the 783 million people without access to an improved source of drinking water. This is a serious concern because of the associated massive health burden as many people who lack basic sanitation engage in unsanitary activities like open defecation, solid waste disposal and wastewater disposal. The practice of open defecation is the primary cause of faecal oral transmission of disease with children being the most vulnerable. Hence as I have previously written, this poor sanitisation causes numerous water borne disease and causes diarrhoea leading to dehydration, which is still a major cause of death in children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent on the planet and the demand for water and sanitation is outstripping supply in cities” Joan Clos, Executive Director of UN-HABITAT

Health Care Workers

Africa has faced the emergence of new pandemics and resurgence of old diseases. While Africa has 10% of the world population, it bears 25% of the global disease burden and has only 3% of the global health work force. Of the four million estimated global shortage of health workers one million are immediately required in Africa.

Community Health Workers (CHWs) deliver life-saving health care services where it’s needed most, in poor rural communities. Across the central belt of sub-Saharan Africa, 10 to 20 percent of children die before the age of 5. Maternal death rates are high. Many people suffer unnecessarily from preventable and treatable diseases, from malaria and diarrhoea to TB and HIV/AIDS. Many of the people have little or no access to the most fundamental aspects of primary healthcare. Many countries are struggling to make progress toward the health related MDGs partly because so many people are poor and live in rural areas beyond the reach of primary health care and even CHW's.

These workers are most effective when supported by a clinically skilled health workforce, and deployed within the context of an appropriately financed primary health care system. With this statement we can already see where the problems lie; as there is a huge lack of skilled medical workers and the necessary infrastructure, which is further compounded by lack of government spending. Furthermore in some regions of the continent CHW's numbers have been reduced as a result of war, poor political will and Ebola.


The Ebola crisis, which claimed its first victim in Guinea just over a year ago, is likely to last until the end of 2015, according to the WHO and Peter Piot, a scientist who helped to discover the virus in 1976. The virus is still spreading in Sierra Leone, especially in the north and west.

The economies of West Africa have been severely damaged: people have lost their jobs as a result of Ebola, children have been unable to attend school, there are widespread food shortages, which will be further compounded by the inability to plant crops. The outbreak has done untold damage to health systems in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Hundreds of doctors and nurses and CHW's have died on the front line, and these were countries that could ill afford to lose medical staff; they were severely under staffed to begin with.

Read Laurie Garrett's latest article:

The outcome is bleak, growing political instability could cause a resurgence in Ebola, and the current government could also be weakened by how it is attempting to manage the outbreak.

Political Instability

Countries that are politically unstable, will experience problems with raising investment capital, donor organisations also battle to get a foothold in these countries. This will affect their GDP and economic growth, which will filter down to government spending where it is needed most, e.g.: with respect to CHW's.

Political instability on the continent has also lead to regional conflicts, which will have a negative impact on the incomes of a broad range of households,and led to large declines in expenditures and in consumption of necessary items, notably food. Which in turn leads to malnutrition, poor childhood development and a host of additional health and welfare related issues. Never mind the glaringly obvious problems such as, refugees, death of bread winners etc...

Studies on political instability have found that incomplete democratization, low openness to international trade, and infant mortality are the three strongest predictors of political instability. A question to then consider is how are these three predictors related to each other? And also why, or does the spread of infectious disease lead to political instability?


Poverty and poor health worldwide are inextricably linked. The causes of poor health for millions globally is rooted in political, social and economic injustices. Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of poor health. Poverty increases the chances of poor health, which in turn traps communities in poverty. Mechanisms that do not allow poor people to climb out of poverty, notably; the population explosion, malnutrition, disease, and the state of education in developing countries and its inability to reduce poverty or to abet development thereof. These are then further compounded by corruption, the international economy, the influence of wealth in politics, and the causes of political instability and the emergence of dictators.

The new poverty line is defined as living on the equivalent of $1.25 a day. With that measure based on latest data available (2005), 1.4 billion people live on or below that line. Furthermore, almost half the world, over three billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day and at least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.

Government Policy, Health Systems, mHealth, Healthcare Workforce

Empowerment is Key to Improving Health Infrastructure in Developing Countries

~Written by Kathleen Lee, MPH Epidemiology, Vanderbilt University Medical Center (Contact:

Providing greater health access and more efficient health care delivery, especially for vulnerable populations, are priorities for anyone involved in public health. Poor health systems in developing countries mean a shortage of trained health care workers, inconsistent inventory of medical supplies, and inadequate surveillance systems. This list is not exhaustive, but we can start here. Building a better health infrastructure, like many public health priorities, requires multi-level coordination. Empowerment has to spread out from the government to the community and to the individual.

We can address the problem first by tackling the shortage of health care workers. Doctors in developing countries are in critically short supply. In 2006, the World Health Organization compiled data on the impact of HIV/AIDS on the health workforce in developing countries. Results showed that while European and North American countries have doctors at a ratio of 160 to 560 per 100,000 people, African countries only have two to sixty doctors for every 100,000. In Malawi, for example, there is one doctor for every 50,000 people. The global shortage of trained hospital and health care staff currently exceeds four million. Training more staff and volunteers is one solution for improving health systems in developing countries. Training other previously unqualified individuals could ameliorate these shortages. Providing incentives for already trained workers to stay in a vulnerable state or country could help build a struggling health system. Having a foundation of trained workers and preventing them from migrating to wealthier countries is an important first step. Empowerment and opportunities to grow and help are at the heart of this strategy.

The second hurdle is maintaining a constant inventory of equipment, medicines, and other health supplies. War, along with political and social unrest, in certain regions further dampens the efforts to provide a steady supply chain. There has to be cooperation between donors and the government to work with the private sector to ensure receipt of necessary health supplies. Partnering with emerging pharmacy chains increases the availability of medicines and drives down the cost for the patients. In the Philippines, Generics Pharmacy has thousands of small storefronts that are widely used by both the rich and poor. Convenience and ease of access are often of paramount interest to every person, regardless of income. The issue of payment is another facet of the supply and demand problem. Corruption that trickles to the local governments, and even the health care workers themselves, leads to some patients having to pay for medicine or services that should have been free. Reforming payment systems to ensure that patients have the medicines delivered before payment is processed directly to the provider will empower the patients and promote compliance. 

Compounding the shortage problems, both of trained workers and supplies, are the inadequate surveillance systems in place. This is the third issue that needs to be addressed, and it is arguably the most crucial. Surveillance is necessary to monitor not only the needs within health facilities, but also within the community and surrounding areas. Without real-time tracking of disease and medical supplies, logisticians, doctors and community health workers are unable to properly estimate need and completely evaluate the effectiveness of their clinic’s efforts. This is where data comes into play. The Novartis Malaria Initiative, under the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, has led SMS for Life, which harnesses mobile phones, internet, and electronic mapping technology to track stock levels for health facilities. Sending SMS messages between health facilities and the district medical officers ensures treatment availability. Stock-outs have been reduced in Tanzania during a six-month pilot program from 79% to 26% in three districts. Not only are these stock-outs reduced, but when they occur, they are also resolved much quicker due to the ease of communication. In areas where internet is unavailable or running inconsistently, Relief Watch has offered a similar solution. It also uses mobile technology, but the application allows workers to not only track supplies but also disease ( The easy and free setup is invaluable to developing countries that have previously relied on paper spreadsheets and forms. Giving workers data at their fingertips gives them more control over their health facility and their patients. These technological innovations are not only crucial for immediate supply tracking and disease surveillance, but they provide research institutions and governing bodies more accurate data. After all, it is data that public health professionals and policy-makers rely on to make decisions and plan strategies. 

The aforementioned plan to improve health systems is by no means novel. Public health practitioners have stressed the importance of training more workers, creating a steady supply chain of treatments, and addressing surveillance shortcomings for decades. Adhering to these solutions requires cooperation and active coordination that extend from the public to the private sector. This is something that cannot be over-emphasized. Empowerment—of individuals, community health workers, and governing bodies of fragile states—is an important foundation from which a better health infrastructure can grow.


The impact of HIV/AIDS on the health workforce in developing countries
Healthcare logistics: delivering medicines to where they're needed most
SMS for Life
Relief Watch
Avert: Universal access to HIV treatment

Poverty, Government Policy, Community Engagement

The Politics of Health Promotion

~Written by Karen Hicks, Senior Health Promotion Strategist (Contact:

As an individual with over twenty years’ experience in the health sector in clinical, managerial and health promotion roles, I am passionate about the role of health promotion as an approach to reduce health inequities.

In addressing health inequities, health promotion is very political, as people’s health is influenced by the resources and opportunities available to them.  As health promoters we need to question who is responsible for such resource allocation, how are allocation decisions made, and who has the power to allocate these resources?

As health promoters we witness how the approach of health promotion is increasingly affected by neoliberalism, where neoliberal governments promote minimal government interaction with a person’s freedom to choose.  The result is that some communities experience victim blaming when ‘choosing’ unhealthy health behaviours and the government’s health outcome graphs don’t improve. Such communities are identified as failing and accountable for their ill health and poor lifestyle choices.  

Effective health promotion places people and communities at the centre, working with communities to find their own solutions in influencing the determinants of their health and wellbeing. As health promoters we have declarations and reports such as the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion and the WHO Commission on Social Determinants of Health that identify best practice health promotion.

The WHO “Closing the gap in a generation, health equity through action on the social determinants of health” report clearly identifies that:

"..inequities in health, avoidable health inequalities, arise because of the circumstances in which people grow, live, work, and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. The conditions in which people live and die are, in turn, shaped by political, social, and economic forces."

So while we know that empowering communities and addressing the social determinants of health is the best health promotion approach, why do governments continue to provide contracts that focus on individual behaviour change? 

  • Offering contracts with behavior related outcomes are easy to measure e.g. how many individuals attended the health day, how many individuals have lost weight or become smoke-free. While these outcomes are laudable we know that such health outcomes and behaviour change are often unsustainable if a person’s environmental, socioeconomic and cultural settings also do not change. 
  • Short term contracts focusing on behaviour change also fit neatly into electoral terms so governments have something to report against in the hope of being re- elected for such commendable work.
  • Committing to long term planned outcomes in partnership with the community to address the social determinants of health takes time and does not generate the same media coverage as purchasing hospital beds or employing doctors.
  • Focusing on personal responsibility also means that governments can continue their relationships with large multinational companies such as the food industry, relationships that could be put under strain if healthy eating legislation was put in place.

What can we do?

  • As health promoters wishing to address health inequities and improve the health and wellbeing of our communities we must communicate that health inequity is a moral and justice issue, and the role of governments in addressing these.
  • We need to communicate with and involve our communities in addressing the social determinants of health that continue to influence their health and well-being.
  • We need to strengthen the capacity of the health promotion workforce ensuring they understand their vital role in improving health locally, regionally and globally.

As health promoters we have a role in providing evidence on best health promotion practice to strengthen the value of health promotion in the wider public health field and to clarity its role and ability to respond to global health challenges.