Even before COVID-19 the World Health Organisation had estimated that half the world’s population lacked access to basic health services, putting the achievement of SDG 3 in serious doubt. Now the stakes are even higher as COVID-19 puts health systems under ever greater pressure and lays bare stark inequalities when it comes to access to healthcare.
A new Business Fights Poverty Challenge with life sciences company Bayer, will explore why now is the time to accelerate progress on the ‘self-care’ agenda. The WHO defines self-care as ‘the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.’ It should be seen as an essential part of the healthcare continuum, encouraging people to look after their own health as well as bringing the first point of contact with the healthcare system closer to the person and their community. This approach can reduce pressure on strained health systems, improve vulnerable people’s health outcomes and empower individuals and communities in the process.
There is no doubt that global health systems are struggling. Over the past 50 years the total health expenditure in 34 OECD countries has climbed faster than GDP. And it is estimated that there will be a global shortage of healthcare workers (15 million) by 2030
Self-care can help address these challenges. Many studies have started to illustrate the potential economic benefits. For example, moving prescribed medications to non-prescription status across Europe would result in estimated total annual savings of more than 5% or €16billion. In the United States, approximately 10% of visits to doctors could be avoided by the use of appropriate non-prescription treatments and avoiding even half of those unnecessary visits would save up to $5.2 Billion annually.
Self-care also offers a global opportunity to increase vulnerable populations access to healthcare – whether be they low income families struggling to afford healthcare services in developed nations or those unable to access basic healthcare services in low resource communities or during humanitarian crises. Access to safe, non-addicting pain and cold relief medication can be the difference between being able to work and earn money to feed your family. Knowledge and access to prenatal micronutrients can support a healthy pregnancy and prevent birth defects. Self-care offers a health lifeline for many vulnerable communities and can be the key to living a better life.
Whilst there is now global consensus on the importance of self-care and recently published guidance from the WHO, there remains a need for a seismic shift when it comes to implementation.
COVID-19 could be the moment for such a shift to occur. Everyone has been more conscious of their health during the pandemic – whether they have been taking more vitamins to boost their immune system, sought to practise social distancing or have had to self-diagnose and treat themselves because they couldn’t get to a healthcare provider. Some governments have aimed to build a culture of prevention, using public health campaigns to promote social distancing, handwashing and the use of face masks. This increased self-awareness on preventing COVID-19 provides a window of opportunity to seriously grow the self-care movement – both in order to effectively continue to respond to the COVID-19 emergency and for the longer term, with regard to other health concerns such as cardiovascular disease, healthy pregnancies and immunity.
The Bayer and Business Fights Poverty Challenge will bring together experts with diverse perspectives to look at this topic and develop a toolkit to improve understanding and enable action in order to increase the number of people empowered to use self-care approaches. The process will seek to build a wider network of stakeholders to take forward this agenda – from educators and campaigners to digital healthcare providers, humanitarian actors and many more.
Harnessing the power of self-care could significantly help move the world towards achieving universal health care. There has perhaps never been a more urgent time to galvanise action.
For more information and to become involved in the Challenge please contact Al***@bu*******************.org
OECD Health Statistics (Rep.). (2015). OECD, Cited in Self-Care, A Global Policy Blueprint, Bayer 2018
 London PA, Shostak D. Potential reduction in unnecessary visits to doctors from safe and appropriate use of OTC medicines could save consumers and taxpayers billions annually. 2011. http://www.yourhealthathand.org/images/uploads/London_Cost_Saving_Study_061711.pdf