Five ways to make healthcare resources in Africa go further

posted by Marie Staunton
22 August 2019

The Tokyo International Conference on African Development is taking place at the end of this month and health is high on the agenda.

At the triennial meeting organised by the Japanese government in collaboration with the African Union, UNDP and the World Bank, Japan will share its deep understanding of how to develop a healthcare system when infrastructure, supply chain and funding is scarce.

In 2018 Japan reported an average life expectancy of 85.77 years, the highest figure it has recorded to date. It places the nation second behind Monaco which boasts an average life expectancy of 89.33 years.

In Japan it’s believed that health is the foundation of a nation’s prosperity and as a member of the G7 it commands the world’s third largest economy. These achievements can be attributed in large part to its well-designed public health system which has enabled it to achieve universal healthcare (UHC) coverage for the past 50 years.

Japan leveraged its G7 presidency in 2016 to push UHC as a top policy priority. And at the recent Osaka G20 summit president Abe reaffirmed Japan’s commitment to strengthening the health sector in Africa. Nearly 20 years on from the 2001 Abuja Declaration, where African governments committed to spend 15% of GDP on health, just two out of 54 states have successfully met the target and the continent continues to report some the worst health outcomes globally.

Following the Second World War Japan’s public health delivery systems lay in ruins, but with careful planning and spending wisely it had set up UHC by the 1950s.

Today parallels can be drawn with the experience of many African states. The shadow of the debt burden and weak economic growth mean that Africa’s health budgets are under strain, but there are a key set of systems reforms, which although overlooked can make a real difference.

More and better healthcare can be delivered by optimising funds that have already been made available for health – be those domestic or international. Crown Agents has been running supply chains in Africa for a number of years and was established in Japan 50 years ago. In our long-running history of tried and tested experience, we’ve identified a set of interventions that governments and donors should be seriously considering to help resources go further.

1. Open contracting

Good governance and sound systems of procurement and supply of medicines are key to enabling countries to attain UHC. In 2015 the Ukrainian government used international organisations to break open a corrupt supply chain which had caused scarcity of essential medical supplies and skyrocketing prices for drugs.

When the government invited Crown Agents to intervene in its failing health procurement system there were just five local suppliers. The Ministry of Health now has over 100 international suppliers on its books and costs have drastically fallen.  

In the four years since Crown Agents’ intervention, $80 million in savings have been secured for the health budget. In human terms these efficiencies and taxpayer gains translate into a 20% drop in heart attack across nearly half the country, since every individual who needs a stent fitted can now access treatment on demand. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in Ukraine and previously stents were in short supply and being procured at twice the cost.

2. Get value for money

Globally an estimated $455 billion of the $7.35 trillion spent on healthcare is lost due to fraud and corruption. In over 10 years of partnership with the Ghanaian Ministry of Finance, Crown Agents has identified over $1 billion worth of savings of public funds by providing independent third-party verification services.

By digging into the detail of large-scale projects before scarce public resources are committed, value for money is rigorously assessed - circumventing any potential waste and corruption.

Audits tracking VfM can accelerate expansion of UHC by ensuring that capital expenditure on high profile infrastructure like hospitals is not disproportionate – thereby enabling savings which can be redirected towards urgently needed primary healthcare which WHO stipulates as the cornerstone for achieving UHC.

3. Streamline stock management via strategic planning and preparation

Transparent and efficient supply chains help to reinforce and promote resilient health systems in peace time and during humanitarian emergencies. The Ebola epidemic spiralling in DRC has killed over 1,800 people since it began a year ago, making it the second largest outbreak in history.

During the Sierra Leone Ebola crisis in 2014, currently still the largest in history, we streamlined our response to become more efficient, cost-effective and agile by minimising the number of suppliers and distributors for personal protective equipment, setting up an in-country warehouse so that Ebola treatment centres could be kitted out faster in line with changing needs, and investing in good data systems which eliminated wastage as we could keep track of all supplies across the chain.

4. Staff retention in rural areas

UHC is defined as enabling communities and individuals to access the health services they need without experiencing financial hardship. It also recognises that health systems cannot function without motivated health workers who turn up to work every day.

With all the finance in the world, but no health workers on the frontline, patients cannot receive care and health facilities remain at a standstill. While financing is critical, the most cost-effective way to achieve UHC in the long term is to educate and train more staff, pay salaries on time, incentivise staff to increase the quality of services and motivate them to serve rural areas.

5. Effective performance-based financing

Our data shows that payments to health centres based on performance contributes significantly to the quality and quantity of services delivered, which fosters expansion of primary health care and widening of UHC. In Zimbabwe the Unicef supported Results-Based Financing for Health Programme has delivered significantly positive outcomes in antenatal, neonatal, maternal and child health.

On Unicef’s behalf Crown Agents implements robust data management and verification processes at 834 facilities across the country. Good data enables centres to increase their earnings based on quality of services and community uptake.

Subsidies received are then reinvested into building capacity and improving the health infrastructure and stepping up the quality of patient care. Effective data management also contributes to better long-term national health planning and serves as a transparent mechanism of accountability showing donors how and where their funds have been spent, with results.

In summary, in Africa existing public or donor funds made available for healthcare can work harder and deliver more to African citizens by adopting good governance which embeds transparency, efficiency and robust planning across the supply chain, including procurement systems.

Health services cannot be delivered without motivated health workers who turn up to work consistently, so investing in staff training, recruitment and retention is one of the most critical and cost-effective ways to expand UHC, particularly across hard to reach communities on the margins in rural areas.

☛ Marie Staunton is chair of development company Crown Agents

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