Speeding up global access to detection and care

 

Dr Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan

Dr Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan

Rengaswamy Sankaranarayanan, special advisor on cancer control and head of early detection and prevention at IARC (the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer), Lyon, will lead the session on Access to effective and affordable treatments in middle- and low-income countries at the World Oncology Forum, Lugano, October 23–25. In this guest blogpost he talks about the policy recommendations he will be arguing for.

I’M LOOKING FORWARD to speaking at the World Oncology Forum about new healthcare financing models that are extending access to effective early diagnosis and treatment of cancer in many low- to- middle-income countries. I would like to see the Forum issue recommendations that can catalyse the pace of this transformation and deliver a very blunt message to governments and international development agencies.

Some success stories

The last few years have seen important progress in access to healthcare, particularly in middle-income countries. I would like to see this replicated in low-income countries.

Thailand, for instance, started introducing universal healthcare from 2002. Today, anyone living anywhere in Thailand, can access care seamlessly across public health services.

Initially under the Thai scheme, people were required to make a single, small copayment – 30 Baht or around $1 – the first time they see a healthcare professional for a particular complaint. That payment would cover the entire journey that follows, including diagnostic tests, treatments and follow-up. This co-payment was abolished in 2007, and universal health care became free for poor people.

Despite initial fears that the health system would collapse, it is working well. One important reason is that the government is investing a substantial amount of its GDP into healthcare. Another is that the “30-Baht” scheme mainly covers people from the very poorest rural communities – those employed by the government and the private sector have their own insurance systems.

Not only has it considerably improved access to healthcare in Thailand, it has also regulated the market, because the system will only pay for standard procedures. Since then, many other middle-income countries have implemented successful schemes to widen access to healthcare, including Turkey, India and Malaysia as well as many of the larger countries in Latin America, such as Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Argentina and Chile.

Spreading the success: two recommendations

1. Cancer control must be a national responsibility

Countries like Thailand have shown it is possible through a variety of models to provide sustainable good-quality health services on a subsidised basis for a large proportion of people, while recovering healthcare costs from those who can afford it.

However, we also need to learn from our failures. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, health services have barely improved, there are no health financing systems, and access to healthcare has not improved at all.

I think one of the major reasons for this is the amount of external assistance they receive, which has blunted internal investment and internal drive and internal planning.

We need to make governments realise that healthcare is their own responsibility, and the systems and investments they have to make should be their own, and should come from their own national budgets. The way to do this is to substantially increase the GDP proportion that is contributed to healthcare from national budget.

So one message I would like to come out of the World Oncology Forum is that:
International organisations and funding agencies should insist that the countries they help must predominantly use national resources to develop and sustain their own national healthcare services.

 2. Cancer control needs a joined up approach

Another lesson we need to learn is that countries need to approach cancer control as a whole, linking prevention, early detection, treatment and palliative care. In Latin America, for instance, screening with the Pap smear was carried out for many many years, with very little impact on disease. Everyone blamed the poor cytology, but the bigger problem was that most women with the positive cytology never had a diagnosis made and never received treatment.

Governments and international agencies need to take a more comprehensive view across the entire spectrum of cancer control.

I think we have lessons to learn here from the comprehensive approach taken by the GAVI alliance, which has been very successful in terms of immunisation coverage and reducing child mortality. So another key message I would like to see coming out of the World Oncology Forum is:
We need to think in terms of a global alliance for cancer care continuum.

 Other key issues

Other key issues I will be asking the World Oncology Forum to consider include:

  • The urgent need to secure universal access to basic early diagnosis and treatment services
  • Opportunities for working within the wider efforts to tackle “non-communicable diseases”
  • Reversing the worrying trend towards adopting expensive and unnecessary imaging investigations, very expensive, very high-tech radiotherapy equipment and techniques, and expensive chemotherapy regimens and targeted drugs whose additional benefit has not been well demonstrated.

I look forward to the discussion

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