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Edited by Blog Gente Saludable Team.

A version of this interview was originally published in the July edition of the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.

(Para ver esta entrevista en español, haz click aquí.)

Not so long ago, access to primary health care was scarce and of poor quality. Although much must be done still to ensure quality health-care for all, particularly those most vulnerable, in recent years, the emphasis on bettering health care systems has resulted in improvements. Patients now expect more from these systems and listening to them might just be the key to furthering human development, at all stages, according to our health policy and planning specialist, Frederico C. Guanais.

Fred, originally a civil engineer, earned a PhD in public policy and was inspired to contribute quantitative research on the extent to which the expansion of access to primary health care can improve health outcomes. He shares his passion and experience in the following conversation.

What drew you to the quality of health care as a research topic?

My initial health research was on the expansion of coverage of health services – a necessary first step in underserved areas. But I knew that unless services were delivered to a certain standard, increased coverage would not improve health outcomes. This is where the engineer in me got interested in solving the complex puzzles of health systems design and implementation, so that “health services for individuals and populations actually increase the likelihood of desired health outcomes” to quote the Institute of Medicine’s (in the USA) definition of quality of health care. I felt that the users’ perspective was missing and this led me to do research on health systems and health-care delivery from the patient’s perspective. In the last two years, a research group that includes colleagues from the IDB and other institutions published a series of articles based on the findings of surveys conducted in six countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, inspired by the international health surveys of the Commonwealth Fund, a New York based think tank.

You published a study on this subject last year in the journal Health affairs. What did you find?

This is one of the studies based on the IDB-financed surveys* that I just mentioned. When the Commonwealth Fund looked at the health systems performance of 11 high-income countries, they found that 87% of patients in those countries rate the quality of care as “good”, “very good” or “excellent”. In our studies, we replicated this exercise in middle-income countries across the Americas – Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Jamaica, Mexico and Panama – and we found that only about 40% of respondents rated the quality of care they received from the general practitioners, as “good”, “very good” or “excellent”. Using the same data we have also found that, among the people who have a regular place of care, 40% of patients say doctors do not spend enough time with them, 26% say that doctors do not explain things in a way that they can understand, and about 36% say that doctors do not review their medications or discuss the potential side-effects. Moreover, our multivariate analysis shows that these variables, which are examples of quality from the patients’ perspective, are some of the best predictors of trust in the health system as a whole. This is a very important message to policy-makers: the experience patients have at primary care facilities is a strong predictor of how people perceive their national health system as a whole.

Why did the expansion of health coverage in Brazil not go hand-in-hand with a high quality of care?

The Brazilian experience is important and representative for lower and middle-income countries that have rolled out universal health coverage (UHC). When the 1988 constitution introduced UHC, there was no implementation strategy and it was not until the expansion of the Family Health Programme (Programa Saúde da Familia) – now renamed the Estratégia Saúde da Familia (Family Health Strategy) –that many people in poorer areas had their first experience of Brazil’s publicly funded health-care system (Sistema Único de Saúde or SUS). Thus the SUS’s main achievement was the piloting and national scale-up of the Family Health Programme during the 1990s and early 2000s. The Family Health Programme achieved spectacular results, especially in regions where coverage had been low, despite the poor quality of care.

Why has Brazil failed to deliver a better quality of care overall since then?

When primary health care is extended to more people, they are grateful to have access to services but once they have access, they start thinking about quality. When services are provided on a large scale – in Brazil this primary care model serves 120 million people – the challenge is to create the managerial and organizational infrastructure capable of assuring a high quality of care. In 2011, Brazil launched a results-based financing scheme called the National Programme for Improvement of Access and Quality in Primary Care (PMAQ is the acronym in Portuguese) and its results may provide important insights into improving the quality of primary care at scale.

What kind of reforms are there in Latin America aimed at improving the quality of care?

There is a strong consensus around the importance of improving the quality of primary care and most health Ministries in the Americas are keen to pursue this goal through reforms. In the field, however, it’s been difficult to find the right strategies to implement such reform. Brazil, for example, is attempting to do so with the PMAQ, and I am hopeful that it will lead to positive results. But more innovation is needed in the primary care model to pursue such an agenda. For example, Colombia launched an important reform in the 1990s focused on coverage and financial protection rather than primary care. Now the private insurers that operate under the contributory insurance scheme have realized that the best way to address noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) is to invest in high-quality, patient-centered primary care as a way to improve health outcomes and control costs at the same time, which is a concept that applies to both public and private models. Chile has a strong primary care system that provides care of high quality, and recent reforms aim to improve access to after-hours care. Peru obtained excellent results with a primary care network focused on maternal and child health, but the country is seeking to improve its primary care services to address a broader range of conditions, especially noncommunicable diseases, aiming at both quality and efficiency – an ambitious but necessary approach. But again: it is one thing to have the political will to usher in reforms and another to know the best way to implement such reforms. This is the challenge. I think the best way is to take a bottomup approach and to implement reform in consultation with patients.

How important is quality of care to efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs)?

It is always difficult to predict. The Millennium Development Goals and the SDGs are both focused on coverage not implementation, but coverage alone is not enough to guarantee quality. There is some discussion in some countries on how they might achieve universal coverage and, ultimately the SDGs, but very little discussion about the quality of care. We really need to focus on quality of care to achieve the SDGs. Quality of care is often a forgotten dimension. Coverage and quality of care must go hand in hand.

Your research suggests that a more patient-centered approach to health-care delivery is the key to improving healthcare quality. How willing are health professionals and managers to embrace this approach?

We are already moving away from the traditional doctor-knows-best approach. One of the drivers of this change is the rapid epidemiological transition from infectious to chronic diseases. If you get a flu shot, you are probably protected and the problem is solved. But noncommunicable diseases – such as diabetes and hypertension – are chronic problems and the patient needs to be involved in the health-care solution to achieve good results. Doctors also need to share their expertise and speak to patients in a way that they can understand. Latin America and the Caribbean are facing high levels of NCDs, particularly cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer and depression, and these will continue to be a major factor contributing to the need for patients’ empowerment.

Are other factors driving the need for patients’ empowerment?

Yes, as discussed, public expectations are changing and this is clear when you compare the results of satisfaction surveys conducted at the entrance of clinics in countries in the Americas and in Africa. Patients in poorer, underserved parts of Africa are happy just to get an appointment, so a survey conducted at a clinic will overestimate satisfaction results because many people don’t even reach the facility. This used to be the case in the Americas, but now these patients expect more. This sense of growing public expectations about the quality of care is a positive thing and can lead to improvements.

As a patient, do you feel empowered? ¿Do you share the feeling that healthcare systems have moved away from a “doctor-knows-it-all” approach?

Share your experiences in the comments section or mention @BIDgente on Twitter.

*If you wish to access this survey, subscribe to our blog here and we will let you know once it’s available!

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