16 countries exchange ideas on how to improve universal health coverage

SINGAPORE - Producing healthier foods, adopting a whole government rather than single ministry approach and the use of data were among the key points to emerge from a summit on how to improve universal health coverage.

Health ministers, or their representatives, from 16 countries exchange ideas at the two-day Ministerial Meeting of Universal Health Coverage, held at Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, which ended on Wednesday.

Dr Janette Garin, the Acting Secretary for Health in the Philippines, said that without the backing of data, countries are pouring money into programmes "blindly".

South Korea spent two years processing data on a million patients, but now it has Dr Jung Kee Taig, president of the Korea Health Industry Development Institute, who said it can target lifestyle diseases like obesity and diabetes.

Vietnam's Health Minister Professor Nguyen Thi Kim Tien, agreed that without the support of data, it is difficult to push through changes.

But Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organisation warned that "knowledge and information does not translate into good public policy".

She gave the example of how strong data shows how bad for health smoking is, yet it still is pervasive.

Dr Ma Xiaowei, China's Vice Minister for National Health, spoke of the fight against smoking led by President Xi Jinping who himself gave up smoking. He said: "Most doctors and civil servants don't smoke, at least in public."

Hong Kong and Malaysia highlighted the need for the food industry to reduce sugar, salt and fat in their products.

The former's Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing Man urged the World Health Organisation to represent member states in tackling large international food companies as most countries don't have the individual clout to get them to change their ingredients.

Malaysia's Deputy Health Minister Dr Hilmi Yahya shared how his ministry told Coca Cola to either reduce the amount of sugar in its 300 ml cans, or reduce the cans to 250 ml. The company decided to use a sugar substitute.

Finland's Social Affairs and Health Minister Dr Laura Raty urged her peers to look beyond the common health risks. She said recent studies have shown that being lonely is as dangerous to health as smoking - and three times worse than being obese.

Japan's Assistant Minister for Global Health Dr Mitsuhiro Ushio said universal healthcare must include long-term care. "Not all old people need medical care, but all need long-term care." he said.

Summing up the meeting as host, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said universal health coverage must be affordable to people and sustainable over time as well as being accessible and of good quality.

He stressed the need to keep people healthy rather than just treating them when they fall ill, adding: "We learned that it is not how many dollars we spend, but how we focus our investment that makes the most difference.

"So countries as diverse as Bangladesh, a large country like China, emerging economies like Thailand and Indonesia, higher-income economies like Korea and Finland, and cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, can achieve universal health coverage."

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