What is a health system?

Online Q&A
9 November 2005

Q: What is a health system?

A: A health system is the sum total of all the organizations, institutions and resources whose primary purpose is to improve health. A health system needs staff, funds, information, supplies, transport, communications and overall guidance and direction. And it needs to provide services that are responsive and financially fair, while treating people decently.

A good health system improves people’s lives tangibly every day. A mother who gets a letter reminding her that her young son is due for immunization against a life-threatening illness is benefiting from a health system. The same holds true for a family finally able to access clean water at a well-tended pump in its village because of a government sponsored sanitation project; or a person with HIV/AIDS who gets antiretroviral medicine, nutritional counselling and regular check-ups at an affordable clinic.

The ultimate responsibility for the overall performance of a country's health system lies with government, but good stewardship by regions, municipalities and individual health institutions is also vital.

Strengthening health systems and making them more equitable have been recognized as key strategies for fighting poverty and fostering development.

Problems with health systems are not confined to poor countries. Some rich countries have large populations without access to care because of inequitable arrangements for social protection. Others are struggling with escalating costs because of inefficient use of resources.

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