Accelerating self-care to achieve universal health coverage

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Self-care has been instrumental to the COVID-19 response. Now it's time self-care was recognised as an integral part of healthcare to achieve UHC for better health for all.

Ahead of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) Day December 12th, GSCF Director-General Judy Stenmark discusses how self-care can help to ensure that all people have access to the health services they need, when they need them. She emphasizes the importance of integrating self-care into healthcare.

When the true extent of COVID-19 began to unravel in early 2020, our first question was "can our healthcare systems handle this?" Then, as the situation worsened, the need to avoid overcrowded hospitals became critical. In such circumstances, where hospitals can no longer meet all the health needs of a community, self-care intervention eases the burden on health systems. But why should this only be the case during a pandemic?

The consumer health industry provides self-care interventions including over-the-counter medicines, medical and diagnostic devices, vitamins and supplements. Over-the-counter medicines have been critical in alleviating symptoms during the pandemic, with new methods of self-care including mobile and telehealth services contributing to hospitals seeing a significant drop in non-essential consultations as patients with common conditions choose to stay at home.

Complementing the provider-to-receiver model

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared self-care as a paradigm shift in healthcare delivery. Self-care is capable of "reducing inefficiencies in health expenditure, improving the quality of health coverage and increasing the agency and autonomy of even the most vulnerable populations to make informed decisions about their health." 1 WHO states that the provider-to-receiver model at the heart of many health systems must be complemented with a self-care model through which people can be empowered to prevent, test for and treat disease themselves.2

Over the last six months, self-care has become a priority at multiple levels, due to the pandemic. Governments are implementing public health campaigns, telehealth services are being implemented, and pharmacists have been given a greater role in the delivery of health care. This all demonstrates the utility of a greater focus on self-care.

Health literacy

One of the key challenges to the integration of self-care in healthcare is health literacy, which includes digital health literacy. We must ensure that individuals are educated and have access to the information they need to self-monitor and treat their conditions in a responsible manner. Over-the-counter medication, for example, can be used safely and effectively as per approved product information or as directed by healthcare professionals.

Community pharmacists play an important role in improving health literacy and facilitating effective self-care. They are often perceived as the most accessible and trusted health care providers and are able to translate scientific information into unbiased advice on self-care products.

Pharmacists enable a people-centered approach that supports health literacy, so that people can take charge of their own health with evidence-based self-care interventions.

The consumer healthcare industry is also working to educate individuals and improve health literacy, through developing materials and resources to ensure that they understand the benefits and risks of self-care products. As health information and treatment becomes increasingly digitalized, these online materials and services must be easily accessible and intuitively designed to support individuals. When people have reliable information, agency and autonomy, they are able to make responsible decisions.

The future of self-care

It's not clear how COVID-19 will affect healthcare systems in the long term, but self-care will likely become more integrated into health systems as we move forward — as it should. In the case of another global outbreak, both healthcare organisations and individuals will be better equipped and experienced to manage potentially life-saving information. This is particularly true in areas where healthcare systems are of poor-quality or non-existent, in which case self-care provides a solution when there is no alternative.

Today, at least half of the people in the world don't have access to essential health services. However, new information and developments are providing a greater opportunity to deliver healthcare to the people who need it most, through self-care products such as over-the-counter medicines and medical devices.

Self-care isn’t new, but its place in an integrated healthcare system has previously been overlooked. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, we know that with self-care we can continue to work together to ease the burden on healthcare facilities, prevent unnecessary illnesses and promote healthy living to get one step closer to achieving universal health coverage.





WHO self-care guidelines