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Prioritize investments in primary health care for universal health coverage: WHO

Noting that primary health care (PHC) plays a crucial role in addressing people’s health needs close to where they live and work, reduces cost of care, enhances equity, and enables better preparedness and response to pandemics, the World Health Organization has urged member countries in the WHO South-East Asia Region to increase investments to strengthen primary health care as the foundation for universal health coverage (UHC) and health security.

‘During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen that countries with strong primary health care systems were able to respond better and faster to the pandemic, while also maintaining essential services with minimal disruption,’ said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region, at a high-level meeting.

The Regional Director was speaking at a high-level virtual meeting that included the health ministers from member countries to commemorate UHC day and launch the South-East Regional Strategy for PHC. At the meeting, ministers emphasized the importance of the PHC approach to achieve UHC and health system resilience. The Ministers of Health pointed to both the timeliness and value of the Regional PHC Strategy to help drive necessary PHC-oriented transformation across the Region.

The Regional strategy builds upon examples from practically every country in the Region on efforts to strengthen PHC and identifies a set of 12 interdependent strategic actions to enable countries to strengthen policy, implementation, monitoring and learning for PHC.

‘PHC is the key that unlocks UHC – through simultaneously addressing concerns related to equity and efficiency.  We need a paradigm shift to ensure that primary health care is provided throughout the life course with a focus on prevention and well-being that is organized around the comprehensive needs and expectations of the people and communities,’ said the Regional Director.

Ensuring communities and individuals receive health services they need without financial hardship as part of universal health coverage is a priority flagship of the Region.

WHO South-East Asia Region has approximately a quarter of the World’s population and disproportionately higher share of poor. The incidence of catastrophic spending, when households are forced to spend more than 10% of household income for health expenses is on the rise. The Region also faces other health-related challenges-, including growing burden of chronic disease, persistence of communicable diseases, increasing threats related to climate change, and effect from ongoing pandemic. Strengthened PHC systems across the Region can serve to drive progress in these areas, while also ensuring that the needs of the poor and excluded are prioritized.

While health service coverage in the Region has improved to 61% from 49% a decade ago, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down progress, underscoring the need to prioritize investments for robust primary health care.

‘One of the key lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the best defense against disease outbreak & other health emergencies is resilient primary health care as the foundation of universal health coverage. Many of the countries that have responded most effectively to COVID-19 are those that had invested adequately in PHC,’ said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, at the high-level meeting.

The Regional PHC Strategy is a direct response to the South-East Asia Region Health Ministers Declaration at the 74th Regional Committee, where the Health Ministers from the Region committed to seize a once-in-a-century opportunity and support transformation toward resilient PHC-oriented health systems.

‘Now is the time to invest in and reorient health systems towards strong PHC services that fulfill the Right to Health, and which meet the health, social and economic challenges which we are facing’, the Regional Director said.

WHO reiterates its commitment to support member countries to develop their health systems and move towards universal health coverage and the Sustainable Development Goals to build a fairer and healthier world.

For ore information on the SE Asia Regional Strategy for Primary Health Care

For more information on the Ministers of Health Declaration at the 74th Regional Committeesea-rc74-r1-eng.pdf (

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