Youth as an accelerator to achieve UHC

Youth as an accelerator to achieve UHC

By Batool Alwahdani, president, and Marián Sedlák, vice president for external affairs, International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations


Here are two numbers that represent both a threat and a hope to the universal health coverage movement: 18 million and 1.8 billion. How can we translate 18 million healthcare workers and 1.8 billion youth into actions that would accelerate universal health coverage to be achieved by 2030?

The right to health, gender equality, health equity, the financial hardship of health care, marginalised groups – these and many other factors influencing universal health coverage are rarely part of educating and training future health workers. In a survey of medical students from 80 countries, 65.5% answered they did not learn about universal health coverage in medical school. With almost no content on global health issues, dental students are slowly starting to explore their roles in developing an interprofessional global dental health community.

These alarming examples and many others reflect the fact that today’s educational systems are not prepared to produce a generation of health workers with all the competencies to deliver health for all.

How do we ensure that health workers have all the necessary skills, knowledge and values to drive universal health coverage? And why do we underestimate the crucial role of socially accountable education and proper training for future generations of healthcare providers?

These questions are not usually included in high-level political dialogues and decision making, and it is natural for political choices to be driven by financial figures and seen through the lenses of the economy and immediate impact. Investing in the education and training of future healthcare providers is an investment in building an accessible, capable, skilled and robust health workforce, able to deliver the care needed in their communities.

Working for Health and Growth: Investing in the Health Workforce, the 2016 report of the United Nations High Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth, projected a global shortage of 18 million health workers by 2030, primarily in low- and lower-middle income countries.

Growth in the health and social sectors has outpaced most other sectors and now represents 10.3% of global wealth. Therefore, investing in the health labour sector – by creating new decent jobs with safe working environments, free of bias, violence and discrimination – will have positive socio-economic impacts, and will fill the estimated shortfall in healthcare providers by 2030. Political leaders need to keep in mind that universal health coverage is not attainable without investments in the employment and education of healthcare providers.

Today’s generation of 1.8 billion young people, which is the largest that we have ever had – with 90% living in developing countries – are undoubtedly important agents of positive change. Using that human capital can accelerate achieving universal health coverage by 2030. We cannot ignore the fact that we live in a time when youth play an active role in health advocacy at local, regional and global levels. Youth and health students’ organisations represent, advocate and speak on behalf of millions of future providers and recipients of services.

Therefore, we need to foster partnerships with youth and ensure they are recognised, acknowledged and supported to play a transformative role. Innovation, grassroot movements, ambitious actions and creative solutions – young people naturally possess these unique skills, which are rarely fully utilised. But youth and early career healthcare professionals cannot be engaged through token actions, such as simply offering them speaking opportunities and inviting them to meetings. States must implement meaningful youth participation by granting them equal opportunities to be involved in decision making and explicitly include them in the political declaration of the High Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage in September 2019.

Two important numbers can thus change today’s norms and flip the coin in the universal health coverage movement: the shortfall of 18 million health workers and the 1.8 billion young people around the world, a hope we must utilise.