The Health System Belongs to the Whole Community

Photo Credit: Mark Tuschman

Photo Credit: Mark Tuschman, 2014

At the Third Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, the theme of improving health outcomes permeates discussions around data, prevalence, coverage rates and policy. The theme of the week is the “science and practice of people-centered health systems”. Questions have been posed, to be fleshed out over the next three days. What does “people-centered” mean to those working on the frontlines? And what are the actionable implications of the widely agreed upon right to health?

The Chair of Health Systems Global, Irene Agyepong, compared the health system to a Nigerian proverb: “the goat that belongs to the whole community belongs to nobody.” Without ownership, the goat will not survive. The health system also belongs to the whole community. Measurable progress in specific areas such as maternal mortality or HIV treatment rates is attributable to the health system. Without investments in proven health systems interventions, systems innovations and research, we would not witness positive impacts on health outcomes. Without fundamental public health structures, WHO Director General Margaret Chan noted, no society is stable. We must all nurture the goat that helps sustain our community.

International attention has turned to Ebola in West Africa, highlighting the health systems implications of the outbreak. At the same time, we know there is much to be done to achieve the goal of an AIDS-free generation, and to eliminate preventable maternal and child deaths. Noncommunicable diseases continue to challenge our health systems, while universal health coverage holds promise for their relief.

Throughout these conversations in Cape Town, we will continue to come back to the idea of people-centeredness: a focus on key populations, on the poor, the vulnerable. The need for increased accountability and transparency, strong governance and leadership, and the inclusion of civil society and communities will guide this dialogue. What we hope to take away is an even greater sense of urgency and collaboration, building momentum to keep building stronger health systems for greater health impact.

This post was written by Chelsey Canavan, Research & Communications Specialist and Ian Lathrop, Strategic Communications Specialist at MSH.