What is universal health coverage?

Online Q&A
October 2012

Q: What is universal health coverage?

The goal of universal health coverage is to ensure that all people obtain the health services they need without suffering financial hardship when paying for them.

For a community or country to achieve universal health coverage, several factors must be in place, including:

  • A strong, efficient, well-run health system that meets priority health needs through people-centred integrated care (including services for HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, noncommunicable diseases, maternal and child health) by:
    • informing and encouraging people to stay healthy and prevent illness;
    • detecting health conditions early;
    • having the capacity to treat disease; and
    • helping patients with rehabilitation.
  • Affordability – a system for financing health services so people do not suffer financial hardship when using them. This can be achieved in a variety of ways.
  • Access to essential medicines and technologies to diagnose and treat medical problems.
  • A sufficient capacity of well-trained, motivated health workers to provide the services to meet patients’ needs based on the best available evidence.

It also requires recognition of the critical role played by all sectors in assuring human health, including transport, education and urban planning.

Universal health coverage has a direct impact on a population’s health. Access to health services enables people to be more productive and active contributors to their families and communities. It also ensures that children can go to school and learn. At the same time, financial risk protection prevents people from being pushed into poverty when they have to pay for health services out of their own pockets. Universal health coverage is thus a critical component of sustainable development and poverty reduction, and a key element of any effort to reduce social inequities. Universal coverage is the hallmark of a government’s commitment to improve the wellbeing of all its citizens.

Universal coverage is firmly based on the WHO constitution of 1948 declaring health a fundamental human right and on the Health for All agenda set by the Alma-Ata declaration in 1978. Equity is paramount. This means that countries need to track progress not just across the national population but within different groups (e.g. by income level, sex, age, place of residence, migrant status and ethnic origin).

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