Based on 105 countries’ reports, WHO’s recently published survey, which collected data from five regions between March and June 2020, illustrates that almost every country (90 per cent of those included) experienced disruption to its health services, with low- and middle-income countries reporting the greatest difficulties.
The survey revealed that, on average, countries experienced disruptions in 50 per cent of a set of 25 tracer services, the most frequently disrupted areas being routine immunisation-outreach services (70 per cent) and facility-based services (61 per cent), non-communicable diseases diagnosis and treatment (69 per cent), family planning and contraception (68 per cent), treatment for mental health disorders (61 per cent), and cancer diagnosis and treatment (55 per cent).
In addition, disruptions to potentially life-saving emergency services were reported in almost a quarter of all countries, including disruptions to 24-hour emergency room services (in 22 per cent of countries), urgent blood transfusions (in 23 per cent of countries), and emergency surgery (in 19 per cent of countries).
“The survey shines a light on the cracks in our health systems, but it also serves to inform new strategies to improve healthcare provision during the pandemic and beyond,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “Covid-19 should be a lesson to all countries that health is not an ‘either/or’ equation. We must better prepare for emergencies, but also keep investing in health systems that fully respond to people’s needs throughout their life course.”
There’s no doubt that these disruptions will have affected a great number of globally mobile individuals with planned elective surgeries, as well as those with ongoing treatments for chronic disease management and many requiring emergency medical assistance while abroad. Indeed, the survey revealed that when it came to the supply side of healthcare, the most commonly reported factor driving the disruption was the cancellation of elective services (66 per cent). Other factors reported by countries included staff redeployment to provide Covid-19 relief, unavailability of services due to closings, and interruptions in the supply of medical equipment and health products.
“Given countries’ urgent demand for assistance during the pandemic response, WHO is developing the Covid-19: Health Services Learning Hub, a web-based platform that will allow sharing of experiences and learning from innovative country practices that can inform the collective global response,” a press release from WHO reads. “WHO is also devising additional surveys at the sub-national level and in health facilities to gauge the longer-term impact of disruptions and help countries weigh the benefits and risks of pursuing different mitigation strategies.”
No doubt WHO and other organisations will be advocating for the increased use of digital health responses, including telemedicine and other digital health solutions, among other things, to help manage the number of rising preventable chronic conditions, and to minimise the cost and operational disruption to healthcare providers looking to provide a consistent service to their members.