An “epidemic of poor quality”: New study finds that poor healthcare quality leads to millions of deaths globally

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on global healthcare quality.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global effort led by the United Nations to prioritize and standardize development goals in every country for the period 2015-2030, offer ambitious targets when it comes to the world’s health. SDG 3 is focused entirely on outcomes of health and well-being, such as reducing maternal mortality, ending diseases like AIDS and malaria, achieving universal health coverage (UHC), and ensuring universal access to reproductive health care. Other SDGs, such as Goal 2 which calls for zero hunger and Goal 6 that aims for universal and equitable access to safe drinking water as well as equal and adequate access to sanitation, have obvious implications for health. However, a recent Lancet Global Health Commission, chaired by Associate Professor of Global Health Dr. Margaret Kruk of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has come to some surprising conclusions about health systems in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Despite a push in humanitarian advocacy and research to focus on increasing healthcare access in LMIC, it is the quality of healthcare that is received by patients in these environments that may require more of our attention. The Commission estimates that as many as 5 million die each year because they are receiving poor-quality healthcare- more than a million more people than those who die due to no access to care at all (3.6 million). That means that annually, 8.6 million people living in LMIC are dying due to poor-quality healthcare systems. Poor quality care can be dangerous for patients, provides misleading data points about healthcare system improvements, and may support corrupt and fraudulent behavior by parties with power in the health sector. Is it possible to achieve the SDGs in this environment?

Health systems should be judged on “what they do for people- not how many doctors they train.”

Dr. Kruk describes quality healthcare systems as based on three factors: effective care, trust of the people, and a system that is able to adapt, both in cases of acute emergencies and with a longer-term vision. While many advancements in access can be supported by metrics, it is possible that we haven’t been measuring some of the factors that really matter. Dr. Kruk told NPR that health systems should be judged on “what they do for people- not how many doctors they train.” The Commission’s study, which was published by the Lancet earlier this month, found that the millions of deaths each year that can be attributed to poor health systems included many deaths due to factors the SDGs explicitly seek to reduce, such as neonatal conditions and traffic accidents. While one of the central tenets of SDG 3 is UHC, the Commission argues that the quality of care “is not yet sufficiently recognized in the global discourse on UHC” and that countries undertaking policies that bring them to UHC “must put better quality on par with expanded coverage” to improve health. The Commission identifies several individual initiatives in LMIC that are developing mechanisms for quality measurement and improvement. However, it is clear that improving the quality of care has not received the effort that expanding access to care has achieved, which will undoubtedly undermine efforts to achieve the SDGs, even if UHC is attained. While expanding access to care must remain a global priority, we cannot discount the need to ensure that care given is of high quality as well. Several studies from LMIC during the period of the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) suggested that in some instances, expanding access to care did not lead to more positive health outcomes because the quality of the care received was poor. However, we still do not even have highly rigorous and consistent tools with which to measure healthcare quality across global contexts in a way that would allow for standardized measures and generalizable conclusions.

Aside from the historical focus on access to care by humanitarian and governmental actors, there a few other reasons that quality of care has not received the appropriate amount of attention of donors and policymakers. Healthcare systems in LMIC are generally disintegrated, with pockets of government services, humanitarian agencies, and private facilities operating throughout the country. This complexity allows for the intrusion of many political and logistical barriers to providing high quality care consistently. In the public sector, corrupt bureaucrats may opt to control who is able to receive jobs at healthcare facilities rather than allow for a merit-based system where poorly qualified staff could be replaced by qualified employees, regardless of political factors. For-profit providers who have disparate financial interests may not properly follow treatment or diagnosis guidelines that are critical to quality care. However, entirely closing low quality facilities would leave some citizens with no access to care at all.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, published a response to the Lancet Commission, agreeing that “nothing less than a revolution” is needed to ensure that high quality care is delivered in every health system around the world, an essential component of SDG 3. He posits that poor data is one of the largest barriers to improving healthcare quality, arguing that we must “go beyond counting simply what services are delivered to measuring how they are delivered.” He calls for a “global learning laboratory for quality,” where local lessons based on the “messy realities of health services” are prioritized, but where these lessons are then disseminated and can be implemented, measured, and compared in contexts around the world. Policymakers and practitioners working in LMIC must consider these factors when designing and implementing health services or research studies. The Lancet Commission points to five distinct foundations where learning and improvement in the process of care leads to higher quality: the needs of the population, governance in the health and non-health sectors, platforms of care, the healthcare workforce, and the tools needed to provide quality care. To avoid the rising “epidemic of poor quality” that the Commission found and to put LMIC on a successful path to achieving the SDGs, we can no longer ignore the pressing need to address healthcare quality just as much as access.

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