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AfHEA 2019: Experiences and lessons learned

By Adie Vanessa Offiong
on March 22, 2019

The 5th Africa Health Economics and Policy Association (AfHEA) conference took place from March 11 to 14. This edition which was also the 10th anniversary of the biennale focused on achieving universal health coverage at primary healthcare level.

It was a gathering of stakeholders from across the globe who converged to attend the 5th AfHEA Biennial Scientific Conference on Primary Health Care (PHC) as a Foundation for Universal Health Coverage (UHC).

The event, held in Accra, Ghana, West Africa from where it was born, out of the International Health Economics Association (IHEA). It was a thrill for me as an aspiring Health Policy & Systems Research (HPSR) expert coming from the mainstream media.

Against the backdrop of the jollof rice ‘war’ between Ghana and Nigeria, I was very excited to moderate a session involving an all Ghanaian team with dons like Prof. Irene Agyepong, Dr. Isaac Morrison and Dr Charity Sarpong, among others who presented papers and were panellists. They spoke on a per capita payment system as a viable strategic purchasing option for assuring universal access to PHC in Ghana.

This edition which was also the 10th anniversary of AfHEA was themed ‘Securing PHC for all: the foundation for making progress on UHC in Africa,’ with global actors and stakeholders in the industry presenting papers on their findings from their various researches, health ministries, organisations and governments. The goal was charting the way forward for Africa to achieve UHC by 2030.

Supported by Ghana’s Ministry of Health, The World Bank, World Health Organisation Africa Region, iDSI Health, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Korean Government and UNFPA among others, AfHEA 2019 spotlighted the challenges people in Africa face every day in accessing healthcare and what financial protection or its non-existence they are having to contend with.

It was also a forum which brainstormed on how innovations, new research and political will power could advance UHC and change the narratives to ensure health for all, even at the lowest level of healthcare provision.

Representatives from the various ministries of health, researchers and other stakeholders from across the continent spoke on their respective journeys towards achieving UHC reflecting on the challenges and successes in the various papers and discussions they presented and/or participated in.

In his speech at the opening ceremony of the conference, Ghana’s Vice-President, Dr. Mahamudu Bawumia said the government has approved the operationalization of Zipline’s drone technology to deliver drugs and blood to rural areas in the country. This is in a bid to ensure a cost-effective approach of providing quality healthcare.

He said, “Next month, Ghana will begin the introduction of drone technology in the delivery of medical supplies. We are taking a lead from Rwanda who pioneered this in Africa. Once we start our drone delivery service will be the largest in Africa. We are also innovating means of healthcare delivery to reduce cost and be as efficient as possible. We are trying to rely on technology to help us be more efficient and also be cost-effective.”

This initiative which is expected to start in April 2019, challenges other African leaders, especially the ‘giant’ of the continent, Nigeria, where communities would rather resort to traditional self-treatment methods than visit primary health centres where they are very often met with the lack of medicines.

The five-day event started with pre-conference workshops on grants writing, applied health economics in Africa, tracking progress towards UHC and promoting informed choices in young people as per sexual and reproductive health.

One of the takeaways at the opening plenary was from Dr. Asamoah Bah, former WHO Deputy Director General who made an analysis of global health in comparison to fashion where styles trend until they later go out of vogue. Bah took participants down memory lane where the snag was Primary Health for All by the year 2000 which was reflective of the different campaigns that have happened over the years with regards to UHC and PHC and why it is important for them to be sustainable rather than fade out of style.

Nigeria’s Dr. Emmanuel Meribole highlighted some of the country’s achievements in the last five years regarding UHC, the national health act and the basic healthcare provision fund among others. The plenary while raising questions on accountability and the need for it, also called for a critical view on policies and programmes beyond simply adopting them.

The conference also featured sessions on hospital management and financing, public health research issues, the influence of cultural practices on the spread of diseases and health systems strengthening among others.

This year, there was something new to AfHEA introduced by Leanne Brady, a Health Policy & Systems Researcher, for which she was also recognised at the conference gala night. This was a session on decolonising health policy and systems research to include and exclude a number of elements like allowing for more Low and Middle Income Countries to participate more actively and decolonising colonial residues which still determine actions in former colonies as well as the sensitivity of choosing locations for confabs that would benefit the global south.

As part of the celebrations, individuals along with the local organising committee were honoured for their efforts towards pursuing the ideals of AfHEA at the gala night which was held at the famous Labadi Beach Hotel. They included among others, the local organising committee for successfully organising this year’s outing and Leanne Brady for suggesting a new angle to the usual AfHEA format.

Prof Di McIntyre, the Executive Director of IHEA received the François Diop Award for lifetime contributions and achievements in health economics.

Prof Di McIntyre (3rd right) and Leanne Brady (1st right) show off their regonition certificates at the AfHEA gala night amisdt jubilation PHOTO – International Health Economics Association.jpg

At the closing session there was a call for more youth engagement at the forum with emphasis on not ignoring them on the road to UHC as their health concerns should command their own context and shape the conversations surrounding it.

Some of the takeaways from the conference included the need for more synergised working structures among all stakeholders from policy makers to financiers, academia, health economists and the media.

According to Prof. John Ataguba a health economist at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, purchasing is often forgotten within health financing. “Purchasing is an aspect of health financing that Nigeria needs to begin to look at strategically. Strategic purchasing is basically ensuring that decisions made in terms of purchasing services have some underlying principles in ensuring that you cut down cost and also ensuring that you can get services as less expensive as possible but of adequate quality to the last person who uses the services.”

While there were over 450 registered attendees at the outing this year from about 40 countries with Nigeria having the largest number of members, it is hoped that lessons taken away will not gather dust only to be cleaned out and rehearsed in time for the next biennial.

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