The member countries of the World Health Organisation (WHO) South-East Asia have committed to prioritising investment in primary health care to accelerate progress towards universal health coverage (UHC), the group said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Prioritising investments to strengthen primary health care, including health workforce, will accelerate progress towards achieving health for all and help realise health-related sustainable development goals, health security and equity promoting health systems,” said Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh in her address to the WHO South-East Asia Ministerial Round Table on ‘Strengthening primary health care as a key element towards achieving universal health coverage.’

The round table culminated in member countries and WHO signing the Delhi Declaration for strengthening primary health care.

The Declaration builds on the commitments of heads of state and government and ministers of health to strengthen primary health care as the most efficient and effective way to address evolving population health challenges regionally, the WHO said. This is in line with the recent UN General Assembly Political Declaration on UHC and the Group of Twenty (G20) New Delhi Leaders Declaration on primary health care.

“We must seize the opportunity to build on the strong momentum generated to accelerate progress towards universal health care. This will ensure everyone, everywhere can access the health care and services they need, where they need, and without enduring financial hardship,” the Regional Director said.

According to the WHO affordable and quality health services remain a challenge with almost 299 million people in the Region having faced catastrophic health spending in 2017.

The Maldives delegation, led by Minister of Health Ahmed Naseem, at the 76th Session of the WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia, New Delhi, India, 30 October-2 November 2023 (Photo: WHO-SEARO)

In the last ten years, the UHC service index in the Region improved from 47 in 2010 to 62 in 2021. The density of doctors, nurses, and midwives increased by over 30 percent since 2014. However, progress stalled or reversed between 2019 and 2021 in some countries due to the COVID-19 epidemic.

To accelerate progress, the Declaration calls for considered investment in primary health care and for improving supply and logistics management to provide adequate, quality, and affordable medical products at the primary healthcare level.

The Declaration also calls for sector efficiency through strengthened governance, monitoring and accountability and the use of innovation and data to enhance access and improve service delivery.

“A robust primary health care-oriented system is the most efficient and equitable approach for achieving universal health coverage. By reorienting health services around a life course approach we can ensure people have access to health services throughout their lives,” Singh added.

The Regional Director urged increased community participation and to ensure health care systems are designed around people with the flexibility to deploy resources efficiently to meet the most pressing of community needs.

Member countries also pledged to promote regional, national, subnational, and cross-country systems for collaboration, knowledge management and knowledge sharing to strengthen primary health care. 

The ministerial round table was held on day two of the ongoing Seventy-Sixth Regional Committee Session for WHO South-East Asia Region, WHO’s governing body meeting in the Region.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), established on 7 April 1948 as the directing and coordinating authority in global public health within the United Nations system, has more than 7,000 staff worldwide collaborating with the governments of 194 member states and other partners to achieve the WHO’s founding vision: the attainment of the highest possible level of health for all people.

WHO South-East Asia is one of the six WHO Regions and covers over a quarter of the world’s population, working with 11 member states, to address persisting and emerging epidemiological and demographic challenges.