Perspectives on Global Health from Pharmacists Around the World, Part 3

As healthcare continues to morph and adapt based on the requirements of kind, compassionate, evidence-based care, pharmacists are playing a vital role in ensuring patient’s needs are met in countless regions across the earth. In this four-part IH Blog series, the pharmacy role accompanied by profession-related challenges and pharmacist-led global health initiatives will be explored within a profession that is often underappreciated. The following perspectives, shared by practicing pharmacy professionals from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, Cambodia, and the United States of America (USA) aim at highlighting various aspects of healthcare that should be properly addressed by governmental bodies, NGOs, and all stakeholders by both sustainable political will and empowering solutions. 

This third segment focuses on local and global pharmacist roles in each of these areas and the thoughts that pharmacists from these respective nation states have been willing to share with IH Connect.

Healthcare systems across the globe are unceasingly identifying novel approaches for health professionals to fulfill. The traditional roles that physicians, nurses, and other allied health workers performed in the past have metamorphosed as patient-care management is altered to effectively accompany patients. A few illustrations include: one of the most prominent international non-governmental organizations (INGO), Partners In Health, has a nurse – Sheila Davis – as it’s CEO contrasting a physician fulfilling this position; physician assistants and nurse practitioners being heavily utilized as primary care providers; and the introduction of community health outreach specialists as vital patient resources. The vocation of a pharmacist, in particular, has been altered significantly depending on the area of the world one inhabits. The majority of humanity believe that pharmacists are those who solely dispense medications, but several regions on the earth have realized the benefit of incorporating pharmacists in direct patient management, treatment guideline development, and even directors of ministries of health. Regardless of the development of pharmacy in a country, this healthcare profession is a key to kind, compassionate patient-centered care. The following commentaries from the United States of America, India, United Arab Emirates, and Cambodia explore the profession of pharmacy both locally and internationally while exposing initiatives to improve global health through pharmacists.  

 Dr. Moeung Sotheara, Ph.D. 

Clinical Research Assistant & Part Time Lecturer – University of Health Sciences

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

In Cambodia, a large proportion of pharmacists work in community pharmacy, pharmaceutical enterprises and hospital pharmacy. However, there is still an insufficient presence of pharmacists in each area. In community pharmacy in particular, the inadequate presence of pharmacists is due to the current system of “name renting”, a legacy of post-war public health policy in response to the shortage of healthcare professionals. In such a system, any person having minimum knowledge in medicine dispensing and having been trained by the Ministry of Health for a specific period of time can “rent” a pharmacist’s name to apply for a pharmacy permit. Nevertheless, despite the growing number of pharmacists owning a pharmacy in recent years, the pharmacists’ role remains the traditional product-oriented functions of dispensing and distributing medicines and health supplies. In other words, pharmacists are still viewed as “simple medicine sellers” by the public. As the country develops and medicine consumption has increased, the pharmacist’s services in community as well as in hospital pharmacy must shift from medication dispensing to a focus on safe and effective medication use to achieve optimal patient outcomes. Pharmacists must assert themselves as medication experts and play a more active role in patient counseling and promoting the rational use of medicine. In addition, pharmacists must also be actively involved in public health. The functions of public health that can benefit from pharmacists’ expertise may include disaster preparedness, immunizations, preventive health measures and educating other healthcare providers about various techniques of prescribing medications and issues related to the drug use process.

Transitioning the discussion to global health, pharmacists have unique skill sets and assets that put them in a prime position to collaborate with members of the health care team to address global health issues and challenges. However, there is limited information on the role of the pharmacist in this field. There are 3 areas pharmacists can play in global health in the future: global health practice and program delivery, global health research, and global health policy. In the area of global health practice and program delivery, pharmacists can serve an important role on the health care team in under-served countries by helping address barriers to the delivery of care due to their knowledge of drug products, storage requirements, dispensing requirements, and logistics of pharmacy operations. They can improve clinical outcomes through patient-centered services such as glucose monitoring and blood pressure management, and also potentially work with local and national health organizations to help develop global health programs based on successful interventions made locally in the community. In the area of global health research, pharmacists who are affiliated with a university that has a focus on this area can assess global health projects and research initiatives to determine if opportunities exist for pharmacy to get involved and to add new dimensions to existing global health research. Finally, the outcomes of global health research often stimulate the need for proposing and evaluating global health policy at both the governmental and national level at which pharmacists can lend their expertise. As medication experts, pharmacists routinely exercise their knowledge of the rational use of medications, their cost-effectiveness, and the safety and efficacy of therapeutic regimens. These concepts can be applied domestically toward the development of policies that have global implications.

Nazgul Bashir, B. Pharm

Registered Pharmacist – Super Care Pharmacy

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

The role of the pharmacist varies from region to region and differs in several aspects. While there are areas of this world in which Pharmacists have vital roles in health sectors, there are other parts where pharmacists are given underutilized roles. Pharmacists are scattered throughout the community allowing them to be the most approachable healthcare professional – needing no appointment, no time restrictions and often being available 24 hours. Due to their aforementioned accessibility, their roles should be thoroughly revised, and the public should be made more adequately aware of their significance in communities.

Regarding the regional role of pharmacists in the United Arab Emirates, there was little utilization of pharmacists 10 to 20 years ago. Even now, some locations lack proper utilization due to their role being more product-based selling and dispensing any medication prescribed by the physicians. This occurs even though pharmacists in UAE are available in hospitals, health clinics, community and in retail stores allowing them significant access to patients.

To elaborate on the under-utilization of pharmacists, the current healthcare system typically does not promote pharmacist’s interventions in patient-management. This could include managing the dose of a hypertension agent, discussing change of therapy to more efficiently achieve patient outcomes, and a larger role in discharges from hospitals where pharmacists can provide counseling and follow-up.

Immunization is another role of pharmacists which could make a huge impact. Currently, most of the immunizations in this region are taking place in hospitals and health centers which are handled by nurses and physicians. However, this role can be handed to pharmacists in the community who can bring awareness to communities so that people won’t miss their vaccinations . In particular, many people are not even aware about the importance of flu shots. Pharmacists should be given an equal responsibility in bringing the awareness in a community and assisting people to receive their shots on time and prevent ailments. Counseling on family planning, use of contraception, palliative care, prevention of disease, identifying high-risk patients for diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are services not offered in pharmacies. Over-the-counter advice and educating patients on dietary supplements are often performed, but pharmacists are still underutilized overall.

However, the future of pharmacists in UAE look promising as several chain pharmacies make new exceptions in implementing more significant roles for their pharmacists. For example, physicians are advised to use the generic name so that pharmacists can choose to dispense the trade name.Additionally, pharmacists are being advised to minimize the use of antibiotics by making them strictly prescription based thus avoiding unnecessary use of them. Many barriers for increased pharmacist services need to be overcome: lack of time to offer services, shortage of pharmacists, lack of patient demand and low patient acceptance, lack of knowledge and skills, and underestimation of enhanced pharmacy services by physicians. With these barriers in mind, government and health authorities are planning their best and making promising change to bring the best of the pharmacy divisions.

Dr. Bryce Adams, Pharm D., RPh.

Oncology Medical Science Liaison

Washington D.C., United States of America 

Before delving into the role of the pharmacist in the United States, I would like to highlight the Oath of a Pharmacist as this serves as the model of how a pharmacist should view their role:

“I promise to devote myself to a lifetime of service to others through the profession of pharmacy. In fulfilling this vow:

  • I will consider the welfare of humanity and relief of suffering my primary concerns.
  • I will apply my knowledge, experience, and skills to the best of my ability to assure optimal outcomes for my patients.
  • I will respect and protect all personal and health information entrusted to me.
  • I will accept the lifelong obligation to improve my professional knowledge and competence.
  • I will hold myself and my colleagues to the highest principles of our profession’s moral, ethical and legal conduct.
  • I will embrace and advocate changes that improve patient care.
  • I will utilize my knowledge, skills, experiences, and values to prepare the next generation of pharmacists.

I take these vows voluntarily with the full realization of the responsibility with which I am entrusted by the public.”

Currently, the USA is in the midst of a great shift in the pharmacist profession. According to 2017 statistics, 60% of pharmacists in the United States were practicing in retail pharmacies – this includes drug, merchandise, and grocery stores. However, these roles are expected to decrease over the coming years. There are several contributing factors for this decrease – one being a decrease in the price margins per prescription. As pharmacies make less money for each prescription that is filled, businesses have to fill more prescriptions with less staff. This can cause a host of issues, such as having less time to counsel patients, more reliance on technology to catch errors, an increase in likelihood for medication errors, and a more difficult time fulfilling the oath of a pharmacist. Ultimately, this leads to under-utilization of the pharmacist profession by placing less of a value on their role of positively impacting patient care.

Fortunately, pharmacists have been realizing this shift and have been proactive in adapting. They have achieved this by advocating for additional venues to provide value, such as being able to bill for medication therapy management services and administering vaccines. These services are extremely beneficial for patients and also increase revenue for the businesses. While roles in the retail setting are expected to decrease, roles in the hospital and ambulatory care settings are expected to increase. Currently, 30% of pharmacists are in these settings. With an increasingly elderly population, these roles are becoming even more important.

These aforementioned pharmacist provided-services typically utilize this profession in a more productive way by rounding with physicians and helping to inform clinical decisions for specific patients. The rest of pharmacists are scattered across a variety of specialties. Two of these specialties are academia and the pharmaceutical industry. Both of these have more of a global health impact, as academia is training the next wave of professionals who will have an international presence and will impact care while the pharmaceutical industry is developing the next wave of transformative medications that will improve patient care on a global level.

Before I finish, I want to revisit the oath of a pharmacist. As the United States healthcare system is being scrutinized due to the cost, as technology is becoming more utilized, and processes are becoming more automated, pharmacists will need to “embrace and advocate changes that improve patient care.” Pharmacists are in a unique position as the medication experts to greatly impact patient care, and it’s up to this profession to ensure that the right patient gets the right drug at the right dose via the right route at the right time.

Dr. Maneesha Erraboina, PharmD.

International Business Manager – Helics Group Scientific Networks 

Hyderabad, India 

In theory, the role of Indian pharmacists is to dispense medications by adjusting the dose for patients based on their health condition, and they play a major role in the rational use of drugs especially antibiotics. However, in India, it is very difficult to find a pharmacist in clinical hospital settings and none of the medical organizations have pharmacist professionals in the healthcare team. 

According to mainstream Indian psychology, most of the population only accepts medications from physicians rather than another profession, like pharmacists. This is an ongoing trait of Indian citizens that has existed for several years with very few signs of significant change in the future. 

In my own personal experience, I had an opportunity to attend an interview for a pharmacy position; however, the role was not directly related to dispensing medications. Due to the disconnect between the doctorate level education and the available job opportunities, I ended up in another profession within the health arena that wasn’t directly related to my education. Although I feel all PharmD. graduates are in a very good position today, they may need to explore unique opportunities as the profession catches up with the education level. 

In the future, I feel pharmacists could play an active role in the healthcare system as they are meant for patient care. I believe this feeds into having a primary role in clinical hospital settings. In addition, Pharm.D graduates will have other opportunities in clinical and medical research, pharmacovigilance, teaching, and scientific journal publishing companies in India.

In India pharmacists are underutilized in professional pharmacy roles such as a clinical pharmacist. However, in exploring other areas of the health field, Indian pharmacy graduates have taken advantage of their education to influence the global health society. As a personal example, my current role as an international business manager allows me to organize health conferences around the world to advance healthcare. As the pharmacy profession continues to grow and adapt across the globe, I believe one role for pharmacists will be ubiquitous: avoiding the irrational use of drugs to protect patients and improve health outcomes.

IH Section Webinar 8/20: Insights from Managing a Health Systems Development Program (HSDP) Grant

Dr. Iyabo Obsanjo, the Co-Director for African Development at the College of William and Mary will discuss her involvement with a World Bank-funded Health System Development Project in Ogun State, Nigeria. She’ll share what worked and what didn’t from her perspective as the Commissioner for Health, in addition to describing areas where Health System development funding is lacking.

Date: Tuesday, August 20, 2019
Time: 11 AM – 12 PM ET

Register to attend here

This webinar is hosted by the APHA IH Section’s Health Systems Strengthening Group. The objective of the working group is to provide a venue for interested global health professionals to learn about systems sciences, collaborate around research and practice activities, and advocate for increased consideration of system sciences in education, practice, policy and evaluation for strengthening health systems. We welcome interested members (APHA membership is not a prerequisite) with expertise and/or interests in applying systems thinking approaches and methods to strengthen health systems, in both developing and developed countries. 

Find out more about the Health Systems Strengthening Group  

Perspectives on Global Health from Pharmacists Around the World

As healthcare continues to morph and adapt based on the requirements of kind, compassionate, evidence-based care, pharmacists are playing a vital role in ensuring patients needs are met in countless regions across the earth. In this four-part IH Blog series, these roles accompanied by profession-related challenges and pharmacist-led global health initiatives will be explored within a profession that is often underappreciated. The following perspectives, shared by practicing pharmacy professionals from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India, Cambodia, and the United States of America (USA) aim at highlighting various aspects of healthcare that should be properly addressed by governmental bodies, NGOs, and all stakeholders by both sustainable political will and empowering solutions. This initial segment focuses on medication access in each of these areas and the thoughts that pharmacists from these respective nation states have been willing to share with IH Connect.

Throughout both developed and developing healthcare systems, access to medications is consistently a top priority for pharmacists and health care systems. As this health care profession attempts to provide services that meet the needs of their communities, access deficiencies habitually impede the ability to follow through with individualized and compassionate care. The lack of access to life altering chemical entities can affect anyone anywhere, from an affluent metropolitan city like Washington D.C. to a small rural Cambodian village in the province of Kampot. Despite the differences in these locations, each of these instances cause significant harm, breed mistrust in healthcare professionals, and create despair among those that seek healing. These frustrating situations are due to intensify because of the increased strain on medical resources who take a “do-what-has-always-been-done” approach. These following four pharmacists, all from various corners of this vast planet, will describe the barriers they consistently face regarding medication access and initiatives that are being undergone to ensure that a novel approach is commenced to address this looming medical tragedy.

Nazgul Bashir, B. Pharm

Registered Pharmacist – Super Care Pharmacy

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Before discussing medication access in the United Arab Emirates, I would like to give a brief introduction about the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It is a middle eastern country with a population of 9.68 million. The country is comprised of seven emirates and healthcare in UAE is regulated both federally & at the Emirate level. 

Now, starting with the topic on hand about medication access in UAE, there are several factors that have an impact on it and I will touch on them individually and in detail. 

First and foremost, I think the most important factor is the number of medications available in UAE. The majority of medications available in UAE are imported drugs. UAE imports pharmaceutical products from 72 different countries. Of those, 10 countries constitute approximately 80% of the entire country’s supply. The domestic sector is rather small; however the UAE Ministry of Health (MOH) plans to increase the number of pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities to 30 by 2020 up from 16 in 2017. Availability of different medication combinations or different strengths are difficult to find due to the limited number of industries in UAE. One such example is oral prednisolone, which in UAE is available in strengths of 1mg, 5mg, 10mg & 20mg. In the USA, there are more strengths available including 1mg, 2.5mg, 5mg, 10mg, 20mg and 50mg. Tourists or expats coming from overseas that need a particular medicine or medicine combination or a particular strength may not find it available.

The second hindrance to medication access is the cost of medications. There are many reasons for the high cost medication. The aforementioned fact that about 80% of medications in UAE are being imported rather than locally manufactured is one reason. Another reason is an insignificant availability of generic medicines as the majority of medicines available are brand name. The final reason is the national health insurance model. Because all national citizens do not have to pay for their own medications, there is no incentive to keep the medicine prices low. As a result, individuals who are not insured under the public national insurance system, for example expats and tourists, face a huge barrier to obtaining medicines. 

With these barriers in mind, initiatives have started to take place in UAE to find a solution. The government reduced 24% of the prices for 8732 medicines over the course of 6 years. Another initiative which took place is increasing the number of generic medicines while also advising physicians and pharmacists to dispense the generic rather than the branded medicines. Through this initiative, generic medicines now account for 30% of the overall pharmaceutical market which has increased from 12% of the market two years ago. If the UAE can bump these numbers up to 70-80% of the overall market in UAE, the UAE will be seen in better position in terms of generic medicines. 

I am glad to be a part of a region where these issues are actively tackled, not just by the government but by private sectors as well. We are also seeing that pharmacists are playing a larger role, providing information on availability of cheaper alternatives on medicines. Pharmacists are the most accessible healthcare professional and it should be part of their responsibility to help make medicines as accessible as possible to their clients.

 Dr. Bryce Adams, Pharm D., RPh.

Oncology Medical Science Liaison

Washington D.C., United States of America

Although there are a host of issues surrounding access to medications, I will be focusing on oncology medications as oncology is my current specialty as a medical science liaison in the USA. 

To begin, I would like to highlight encouraging statistics that show the accessibility of oncology medications in the USA. A recent 2019 study found that 96% of new cancer medications were available within the United States, the next highest nation was at 71%. Furthermore, the average delay in the availability of cancer medications within the United States was 3 months, with the next closest nation being at 9 months.

In terms of novel and innovative treatment options, oncology drugs have been increasingly approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) throughout the last few years. The FDA has enacted policy changes to attempt to increase the efficiency of drug reviews. The results have been significant – in 2017 alone, 46 new oncology drugs were approved. Moreover, from 1991 to 2016 there was a 27% decrease in cancer related deaths in large part to the expanded and more targeted-based therapy. The chance that a patient will live for 5 or more years has increased by 41% since 1975.

Outside of regular treatment options of those living with cancer, patients have the ability to participate in a clinical trial. Currently, there are 24,351 clinical trials listed as active (defined as not yet recruiting, recruiting, enrolling by invitation, or active) – 11,813 of those trials are active in the United States. However, even with the surplus of ongoing clinical trials, it still seems there is a lack of patient enrollment. It is estimated that roughly 70% of patients are interested in clinical trials, and yet <5% of patients actually enroll in clinical trials. Some of these barriers to enrollment include: lack of availability at a specific clinic, lack of a specific trial available, patient ineligibility, physician is unaware of trials/not offering them to patients, and a patient deciding not to enroll in a clinical trial (perhaps due to a fear of receiving the placebo).

An aforementioned barrier to cancer treatment that needs to be emphasized is the locations of specialized cancer clinics. Studies have shown that patients who are diagnosed with advanced staged cancer are likely required to drive an hour or more to the nearest cancer clinic for the appropriate care they need. Additionally, travel distance may affect treatment decisions. A patient may select a slightly less efficacious therapy if that means they have to travel less often. 

Two initiatives have recently been instituted to further increase the accessibility of medications. First, in an effort to go towards value-based contracting, some companies are beginning to only charge patients if their medications are effective. While this is a rarity, it will be interesting to follow the impacts of this on other more costly treatments and to determine the impact on patients. Secondly, in 2018, the right to try act was passed. This essentially gives terminally ill patients who are unable to enroll in a clinical trial and have no other remaining FDA approved options, access to other treatments. While this is a relatively new policy and there are some restrictions, hopefully it will give patients hope and additional treatment options. 

Dr. Moeung Sotheara, Ph.D. 

Clinical Research Assistant & Part Time Lecturer – University of Health Sciences

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 

In rural Cambodia, access to medication is especially limited when compared to urban areas. Access is limited by two main factors in these communities. Firstly, many people living in rural areas have low incomes which means it is difficult for poor rural individuals to buy medicines for serious illnesses. Secondly, community drug outlets and public health facilities are generally concentrated in the provincial capitals/cities, making it difficult for people from rural, remote areas to get access to those places. 

Usually, medicines imported from other Asian countries such as India, China, Vietnam, Thailand, or Malaysia are cheaper and therefore, more accessible. These cheaper medications, however, tend to be held toward a lower quality standard which can lead to disease state progression, antibiotic resistance, and other situations that can inflict harm onto patients. However, western brand medicines, which are usually held to a higher standard of quality, are less accessible because their prices are higher. Locally, they are generally considered “medicines for the rich.”

The lack of access due to  these aforementioned barriers makes diseases difficult or impossible to treat in cases where medication is necessary to cure it. Patients may see their disease aggravated and could die of it.

In order to address these medication access complications, a specialized team should be created that assists patients or their relatives to get medication which is far from their home and provide a specific loan with very low or no interest rate for villagers who cannot afford to buy medicines. This approach has been initiated in Cambodia through the increased access of health equity funds (HEF). These funds, allocated to individuals unable to afford the out-of-pocket expenses for public services, are pooled from a variety of sources like the national health budget and various donors. These patients are then given a specialized card to receive these funds when public services are used. The HEF focuses on addressing low medication access through the initial financing as aforementioned, community support, quality assurance, and finally policy dialogue. The results of this project have been promising – there was a 28% increase of patients utilizing public services with HEF than before without the HEF. In addition, the patients were not perceived to be more stigmatized within their communities.  

Veda Peddisetti, B. Pharm.

Clinical Pharmacist – Satya Sree Clinic & Diagnostics 

Hyderabad, India 

India is the largest country in South Asia and the second most populous country (1.35 billion) in the world. In addition, India is said to be in the third stage of demographic transition with birth rates declining and death rates decreasing. In the past few decades, India has experienced monumental population growth. This has led to many problems in healthcare management throughout the country, in particular, medication access. The direct cause seems to be the over-demand of medications. However, various indirect causes include poverty, varying per-capita incomes, unemployment, and out of pocket expenditures (India doesn’t have an established federal healthcare insurance system like Medicare in the USA, National Health Service in the United Kingdom, etc.).

In addition to the aforementioned causes, the literacy level in villages and rural areas are quite low. Many of the farmers and laborers from rural India are uneducated. As a result, many don’t know how medication can help them get better and how important it is to take medication every day to keep chronic conditions like hypertension and diabetes in control. In urban areas, all income classes are more educated and are given awareness more frequently about healthcare when compared to individuals in rural areas. So, they tend to use medication and other healthcare facilities more frequently. Accessibility is not a huge issue in cities but this creates competition among providers and results in high costs which turns into a problem for low and average income communities of the urban population.

Usually, regular medications like anti-diabetics, anti-hypertensives, common antibiotics, analgesics, vitamins are available throughout the country except in some deeply located tribal areas. Medications which are used for some cancer chemotherapies, auto-immune diseases, and some orphan drugs are not widely available. People have to go to highly rated hospitals in developed metropolitan cities to get these medications, and I believe this scenario is the same anywhere in the world. This kind of accessibility shouldn’t affect any patient or healthcare provider unless there is any medical emergency. And thanks to the continuous efforts of the Government of India, India is improving the accessibility of medication. Recently, various health benefit schemes were implemented like free supply of in-patient medications in civil hospitals and sale of reasonably priced generic medications in rural and urban communities.

It is a well-established fact that India is a potential supplier of medications to many countries in the world. India is a manufacturing and research hub for many reputed pharmaceutical companies. However, this often leads to pharmaceutical companies who are exporting their products in large quantities rather than supplying them domestically. These medications range from certain medications for chronic diseases like diabetes drugs to life saving medical devices like the Epi-Pen. These pharmaceutical companies more interested in profit are preventing the Indian population from getting the best medications.

With the lack of proper medications, healthcare professionals cannot take the proper steps in patient care that they could actually do if they had adequate access to medications. So, it is vital to educate people of India, especially the rural population, while simultaneously framing and implementing some regulations and limits on the export of medications by pharmaceutical companies in order to improve healthcare in India.

The Forgotten Health Inequality: Languages and Medical Information

Health inequalities and disparities have plagued this fragile earth since the beginning of unprecedented medical advances, the wealth divide, and the transition from agricultural economies to industrialized states. These health inequalities can range from lack of access to diagnosing technology, unaffordable medications that treat ubiquitous ailments, and distribution barriers that cause a shortage of preventive tools and drugs. Each one of these entities cause an immense amount of suffering for both health care providers, who are required to overcome the barriers, and, for those who are directly afflicted – patients and their families. In addition to these aforementioned health inequalities, the distribution of medical information is directly affected by another concealed yet detrimental form of disparity: the lack of diversity within the languages it is presented in.

Those who inherently speak English won’t face the same barriers as a rural Brazilian physician being unable to fully comprehend English specific instructions for a novel diagnosing tool for the Zika Virus. Nor will those inhabiting anglophone countries endure the same struggle of a Burmese pharmacist who isn’t able to utilize the pharmacokinetic data from a recently approved medication for colon cancer. The fact that information in English related to lifestyle changes for coronary heart disease might not be clear to some community health workers may not be realized from those hailing from the developed world where English is commonly spoken. Treatment guidelines, publications in prominent internationally renowned journals, medication inserts, and countless other resources are typically exclusively published in the English language – creating an insurmountable barrier for those having little access to an English medical education. While having a universal language like English as a connecting tool for the international health community has several benefits, this encompasses a little more than a billion fluent/semi-fluent English-speaking individuals on this earth: leaving about 6 billion humans with little or without access to this rich collection of health information. This language barrier for the majority of humanity amplifies the problems with the quality of care a health care provider is able to administer when also considering other health disparities like lack of access to technology and medications.

This disparity infects and disrupts many facets of the global health communities desire to truly empower local health care professionals and create sustainable public health care institutions. Although the leading global health entity, the World Health Organization (WHO), has attempted to tackle this disparity and expand its impact through diversifying its official languages, it still leaves half of the world population without access in their native tongue. The official languages of the WHO include Arabic (242 million native speakers), Chinese (1197 million), English (335 million), French (76 million), Russian (16 million), and Spanish (399 million) which totals to be only approximately 2.4 billion people. Furthermore, even with these six official languages, only WHO official documents are translated into the six languages while technical reports, guidelines and even the majority of the website is strictly in the English language. Besides WHO and as previously mentioned, the venues novel information is presented in like journals/guidelines is inaccessible to the great majority of health care professionals attempting to provide evidence-based care for their patients. A study published in Deutsches Ärzteblatt International in 2008 revealed that the amount of English-only journals in Medline has risen to 89% with roughly 9/10 new journals with Medline are in the English language. In addition, of 103 journals that are ranked and listed based on frequency of being cited, only 13 are not written (entirely or primarily) in English. This remote information can lead to situations where proper treatment guidelines are not followed causing morbidity or mortality, a lack of awareness of a necessary change within a hospital system, and other negative events that prevents local health leaders from taking charge of their community’s health and creating maintainable interventions.

Although making this medical information accessible to a superior majority of humanity is a difficult task due to lack of awareness, cultural aspects in languages, funding, and human resources, several programs have been recently developed throughout the world to begin addressing this health inequality with the assistance of WHO and political will:

    • In 2009, King Saud bin Abdulaziz University of Health Sciences in Saudi Arabia conducted a study that revealed that just over 4% of all Arabic health information websites met international quality standards. With this data being brought forth, the WHO’s Global Arabic Program was established to disseminate the work of WHO through Arabic publications, make reliable and current health information and research outcomes available in Arabic, and establish networks and knowledge communities in Arabic translation, terminology and publishing. In addition to this WHO program, an establishment of an Arabic health information foundation was created to govern and accredit Arabic health websites and an Arabic health encyclopedia
    • In 2012, WHO established a program, called the WHO Moscow documentation centre, which was funded by the Russian government to increase the number of technical WHO publications in Russian, such as clinical guidelines, and to establish a mechanism for consulting Russian-speaking public health experts on which publications they needed most. In order to ensure proper translation and clinical effectiveness, Russian experts are also invited to review the Russian publications before being revealed. This has directly empowered local health care providers and has provided a sustainable foundation for future Russian health dissemination success.  
  • In 2005, WHO established the ePORTUGUESe program to increase access to health information in Portuguese as part of a collaboration with Angola, Brazil, Cabo Verde, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, Sao Tome & Principe and Timor-Leste. This has allowed each country to develop their own specific health information library to meet specific needs for their populations. This platform can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection, giving health care providers a venue to improve patient care.

These are promising starts to addressing the language barriers that affect health care providers each day while caring for their patients. However, a continued devotion for assisting Khmer-speaking midwives in rural Cambodia utilizing a new birth spacing method, Creole-speaking pharmacists in Haiti checking for drug interactions between coumadin and levofloxacin, and Portuguese-speaking pediatricians in Mozambique deciding what dose of a powerful antibiotic to give needs to be followed through with to honor the global health’s community commitment to each other. While these examples serve as templates for success, an increase in awareness must be brought to the attention of heads of states and health leaders to ensure this health inequality is properly addressed. International health journals have the obligation to better structure their publications in order to make the information more language accessible; while local journals need to promote publications in the residential language to improve the provided health care in the area. The empowerment of public and private health care professionals is vital to the success of their country’s health, and overcoming the medical language barrier is the first step to achieving this.

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.