Accelerating progress towards universal health coverage in the Middle East and North Africa

An estimated 37% of the 70.8 million people displaced worldwide originated from the Middle East and North Africa. Civil conflict has had a devastating impact on health service infrastructure in some countries, whilst in others, high levels of out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare risks pushing households into poverty.

In December 2020, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Egyptian Academy of Scientific Research and Technology hosted a joint virtual workshop to assess the current healthcare system in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and explore the potential role of research in accelerating progress towards universal health coverage (UHC).

The ambition of UHC is to ensure that all people have access to essential health services without enduring financial hardship. It is a key objective of all countries, including those in the MENA region. However, health systems differ between countries in the region and in some out-of-pocket expenditure on health is high, putting households at significant risk of financial impoverishment.

Today, we have published a report from the workshop “Advancing universal health coverage in the Middle East and North Africa: The role of research”, summarising the themes, opportunities and challenges identified by participants in implementing UHC.

Key issues highlighted in the report include:

  • Conceptions: Politicians and other decision-makers in the region have different conceptions of what UHC means in practice. The lack of a regionally-shared vision of how UHC should be implemented was considered a major obstacle.
  • Diversity of the region: The MENA region is highly diverse and includes several fragile and conflict-affected countries, where health services have been disrupted and there is mass displacement. Local, context-specific solutions are necessary.
  • Lack of national health research strategies: Health research is generally not prioritised, leading to weak priority setting for research and a lack of coordinated research programmes to address national priorities.
  • Limited academic interest in health policy and systems research (HPSR): Very little HPSR is carried out in MENA countries to improve service delivery and health system organisation. Universities do not priorities HPSR, and research interests are typically those of the investigators and may not necessarily reflect national health priorities.
  • Limited policymaker-academia interaction: The translation of research findings into policy and practice is not considered a high priority. Channels of communication may not exist to enable researchers to engage with policymakers during priority setting, and evidence may not be presented in ways that policymakers can use.

Despite these challenges, workshop participants were optimistic that the region has pockets of excellence in health services which could provide the foundations to advance the UHC agenda. What is needed is the mobilisation of political support for UHC, and for priorities to be established that reflect regional and national needs. Participants also called for policymakers and researchers to work together more closely to address national priority health issues.

For more information, please download the full workshop report, which is available to the right of this page.

This workshop was the last of three policy workshops in 2020 looking at Universal Health Coverage in Low and-Middle-Income Settings, delivered as part of the Academy’s GCRF programme. For more information, including our wider work on UHC, please visit our dedicated GCRF page.

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