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Opinion

Primary health care must come first in the Asia Pacific

Strengthening weak local systems will save money and raise health standards

Primary health care is better for people, and it saves money.   © Reuters

Countries in the Asia Pacific spend, on average, 8% of GDP on health. A lot of that money goes to care provided in hospitals. In many cases, the money could be better spent by focusing on primary health care.

Primary health care makes populations healthier. It includes a range of health services, such as screening and treatment for common diseases, preventive care like vaccination and health information, and treatment for common, nonserious ailments like colds. Good primary health care services should be affordable, and provided close to where people live and work.

Primary health care is better for people, and it saves money. This is especially true when we think about an issue like the management of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease -- all of which are on the rise. Cost-effective prevention and treatment, provided at the local level, keeps people healthy, and it controls costs. When people come to their local clinic for screening and routine visits that identify and manage health problems early, they can avoid expensive hospital visits and diseases that can lead to years of costly care, or even premature death.

Many infectious diseases are also managed most efficiently through primary health care. We know that tuberculosis alone will cost the global economy an estimated $ 1 trillion by 2030 unless prevention and control efforts are stepped up. This can only happen effectively at the primary health care level.

In the past, investment in health has meant investment in hospitals. This has left primary health care systems relatively weak. When services are low quality, expensive or unavailable at the local level, people often have to make costly journeys to hospitals, where the care is more expensive to provide. In some countries, one in five families spends more than 10% of their income on health care. The expense of caring for one person with a major or long-term illness can push entire families into a cycle of poverty which can be difficult to escape.

At the World Health Organization, we believe health is a human right. No one should have to decide between their mother's medicine and their child's education.

On a national level, a strong primary health care system helps the country's development prospects. Healthier people miss work less and contribute more to national prosperity. They are also able to improve prospects for their families.

People and economies are also better protected from health security risks with a strong primary health care system. Diseases and disasters do not respect national boundaries. But they can often be controlled and the impact minimized when there are strong systems for primary health care. Primary health care is the first line of defense against outbreaks and health emergencies.

Primary health care is the foundation for universal health coverage -- a vision where all people have access to quality health services without financial hardship.

Rather than treating a single disease or condition, primary health care is about caring for people and helping them improve their health or maintain their well-being throughout life.

Through the Sustainable Development Agenda, all countries have committed to achieving universal health coverage by 2030. For this to happen, we need clear vision and targeted investment -- now.

This World Health Day, the 7th of April, let's get smart about health spending. Investing in primary health care is one of the best investments governments can make. By committing to health and strengthening primary health care, leaders can protect their countries against the health challenges of the future, build strong economies and promote thriving communities. Let's create health for all.

Takeshi Kasai is World Health Organization Regional Director for the Western Pacific.

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