Increase Healthcare Spending By 1% GDP, Save 60 Million Lives

The World Health Organization’s Director-General called on global and national leaders meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to increase their national healthcare spending by an average of 1% of National Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

A 1% GDP increase in spending would inject more than US $200 billion a year into community-based primary care systems, which WHO estimates will save over 60 million lives a year, as well as increasing the average global lifespan by 3.7 years by 2030, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in remarks at an event hosted by the Graduate Institute in Geneva and International Geneva on Tuesday, the opening day of the four-day forum.

If the world is able to reach those health goals, low- and middle-income countries would also see an extra 2-4% in economic growth on top of the health gains.

Dr Tedros (left) with Swiss Federal Councilor of the Interior Alain Berset at WEF 2020

Focusing on such ‘best buys’ for health, Dr Tedros urged global leaders to invest in health promotion and prevention, while regulating the industries that damage human health.

“It’s not a question of whether countries can invest in health, it’s a question of whether they can afford not to,” said Dr Tedros. “Emergency preparedness, health promotion and prevention, and primary care represent some of the best value-for-money investments a country can make,” he added in a video posted on WHO’s official Twitter.

This investment is even more important in the context of aging populations, the WHO Director General also noted. “As people live longer and health care advances, countries must work to promote healthy living and “keep people out of hospitals as much as possible.”

However, most of the US $7.5 trillion dollars spent on healthcare each year is funneled into managing diseases at expensive secondary or tertiary hospital systems – after patients have already become sick. While hospital care is necessary and important, some 80% of the average person’s healthcare needs can be addressed at the primary care level.

His remarks highlighted the agency’s increased focus on health financing as key to expanding health services to more people worldwide.  This has also been a message put forward by other leading WHO officials over the past year, including Deputy Director General Zsuzsanna Jakab and Assistant Deputy Director-General Ranieri Guerra.

Speakin to economic leaders at Davos, however, Dr Tedros also underlined the comparative cost-effectiveness of health programs in terms of lives saved. “If you consider investment in health compared to investment in preventing terrorist attacks, we can’t even compare,” he said, lamenting the much larger budget often given to counter-terrorism programs.

“But if a pandemic breaks out, it will have even worse estimates than a terrorist attack – political and social.” He referred to the deadly 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic as an example, which infected an estimated third of the world’s population at the time and killed over 50 million people.

In terms of where countries can find resources to finance the increase in health spending, the WHO Director General pointed to increased taxation on unhealthy products such as sugary drinks and alcohol, as measures that can “add to government revenue.” Global leaders also need to rein in the trillions of dollars spent on subsidies for unhealthy industries such as fossil fuels, which not only sap government funds but harm public health through climate change and air pollution emissions.

UNAIDS took it a step further, arguing that one root cause of social and economic inequality was the lack of access to health care, while  gaps in public health financing could be met by “eliminating tax dodging” and implementing “progressive taxation” in a press release Tuesday.

“The right to health is eluding the poor, and people trying to lift themselves out of poverty are being crushed by the unacceptably high costs of health care. The richest 1% benefit from cutting-edge science while the poor struggle to get even basic health care… We’re here to tell governments to do the right thing: tax the rich and spend it on health.”

“Here in Davos there are about 100 billionaires… If they sat in one room they could solve the problem. It is a small change for them,” declared the agency’s Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, in a TV interview with Al Jazeera, Monday evening.

Mental Health – No Longer an Invisible Issue

The push for increased spending on preventative health services follows dawning recognition of the impact of non-communicable diseases – which are often chronic and crippling – on the global health agenda. Among those, WHO’s increased prioritization of mental health disorders was spotlighted in Davos during a special session with Indian actress and activist Deepika Padukone and moderated by the WHO Director-General.

“Mental illness crept up on me when I least expected it… It came with absolutely no warning signs,” said Padukone, one of the top 10 earning actresses in the world. She noted that her struggle with mental health happened during a professional and personal “high” in her life.

“It just illustrates that it can happen to anyone,” she added.

Director-General, World Health Organization (WHO), Geneva, speaking in the “An Insight, An Idea with Deepika Padukone” session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, January 21, 2020.

In a powerful moment, Dr Tedros then asked those in the audience who had personally experienced mental health struggles of their own, or with a family member or friend, to stand up. One by one, looking around at their colleagues, members of audience rose up until more than half of the room was standing – including not only Padukone but the WHO Director General himself.

“Nobody is immune, nobody… we all know somebody close. And that’s why nobody should be alone, because we all know someone, because we have all experienced it,” he said, breaking the silence.

Padukone, founder of the Live Love Laugh Foundation, was honoured with WEF’s 2020 Crystal Award for her work in raising awareness for mental health after coming forward with her own struggles with depression and anxiety in 2015.

“In the time that it has taken for me to accept this award, the world has lost one more person to suicide,” she said somberly in her acceptance speech. “That person was a father, a mother, a son or daughter, a brother or sister, a friend, family member or colleague.

“Every 40 seconds someone dies by suicide in the world. US $1 trillion – that is the estimated impact of depression and anxiety alone on the global economy.

“It is important to understand that depression and anxiety are like any other illness and are treatable. However, in my experience, acceptance is the first step to recovery.”

Image Credits: Twitter: @DrTedros, World Economic Forum / Boris Baldinger.