Director-General's Office

Universal Health Coverage: The Key to a 21st-Century Health System

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros's speech at the Dialogue Series in South-South Collaboration On Health Development and Innovation

Beijing, China
19 August 2017

Excellencies, distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour to be invited back here today. As you know I was here a few months ago and it was a good omen. Then I was here as a candidate and now I am here as Director General of WHO, so I thank you for your support.

Here you have young people, who are our future. Experienced and wise professors. World-class facilities. The brightest and best minds. Everything is available – the talent, the resources, the energy, and the creativity – to make things happen.

My visit carries a special personal significance. I give you here my secret today as I had a long attachment to Peking University before now. Peking University is the alma mater of one of my heroes, Dr Tu Youyou, who discovered artemisinin. What she learnt here and her relentless pursuit of a treatment for malaria stands as one of the greatest triumphs in the history of medicine. As someone who has spent many years of my life fighting the scourge of malaria in my own country, I know only too well the inestimable value of Dr Tu’s work. Because you know I am a malariologist so that is why I have this affinity with Peking University.

Millions of people around the world including the country I come from, owe their lives to her and her research. The only mystery about her Nobel Prize is why it was not awarded earlier. It’s a question.

I feel a great affinity with Peking University. I have personally moved from a focus on malaria, to health systems and diplomacy and now global health, Peking University is a world leading centre of excellence in all of these fields. Peking University’s research on health financing, health insurance and people centered health systems, together with other leading Chinese research institutions such as Tsinghua and Fudan has enabled China to develop and implement its ambitious health reforms.

China is leading by example on universal health coverage with over 95% of its population now having basic health insurance. I believe in universal health coverage, and the progress China has made in this area is fundamental to its health and success. The university continues to play a key role in the monitoring and evaluation of these health reforms.

Similarly your researchers played a key role in the preparation for President Xi Jinping’s Healthy China 2030 initiative, a unique example of a state leader putting health and the SDG 3 at the core of national development. Your schools of medical and pharmaceutical research are world class.

I am especially pleased to learn that researchers from this university are involved in developing the new National Health Law for China that will consolidate all this wonderful progress. This law represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enshrine the principles of equity and universal health coverage as cornerstones of the legal framework of your health system.

Improving public health is not just a medical or technical challenge - but requires political and diplomatic efforts too. In recent years Peking University has been working closely with WHO on a course on health diplomacy for leaders from China and other countries. It is this type of leadership and health diplomacy that is needed to solve the health problems of today and the future.

Yesterday I was privileged to speak at the opening of the Belt and Road Forum for Health Cooperation. Vice-premier Liu Yandong outlined the vision of his Excellency President Xi Jinping’s for the Health Silk Road. It is remarkable how well the vision of WHO aligns with the objectives of the Health Silk Road.

The Health Silk Road renews ancient links between cultures and people. The Silk Road was an amazing corridor for innovation. The Belt and Road Initiative gives us a wonderful opportunity to shape the health of billions of people for the better. We need to seize this opportunity – and to work together. We are putting health at the centre of the modern Silk Road - to me, this is one of the most important priorities a leader can champion.

To do this, we need to build partnerships that will take forward the objectives that Vice Premier Liu Yandong outlined yesterday – stronger people to people connections, increased collaboration and sharing on health policy, health research, and global health diplomacy. Peking University and the global health networks you lead, such as the China Global Health Network, can be at the core of this. In fact you are already leading the way.

You are training current and future global health diplomats and global health leaders, and WHO is delighted to be a better partner in this endeavour.

Every year you send students to the World Health Assembly. And every year with WHO you debate the leading health issue through fora like Model United Nations.

Helping countries to learn lessons from one another is a key component of WHO’s work. Researchers from this university are already providing advice in Cambodia and Myanmar on how to build basic health care systems to make universal health coverage attainable. Sharing hard-earned knowledge and experience is a precedent that I hope every country will follow.

Every country has its own unique needs. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for achieving universal health coverage. But the fact that a country as large and complex as China has been able to make the progress it has made shows that with political commitment, anything is possible.

But we all have a role to play. For our part, WHO can facilitate the kind of engagement with global, regional, and national leaders that triggers action. We work with heads of state and government and national parliaments to get UHC on the political agenda.

We will help countries already working towards universal health coverage to measure their progress against established benchmarks. We document and share best practices so that countries can see what has worked elsewhere, and determine whether that could work for them or could be adapted to their particular circumstances.

You, as members of the research community, also have an invaluable role to play. We need you to tell us which interventions are working and which are not. We need strong data and evidence, followed by your most rigorous analysis and best advice.

As populations grow and change, so too do their health needs. We need microbiologists and epidemiologists to better understand diseases; we need chemists to develop new treatments; we need implementation researchers to ensure health services are delivered effectively; and we need economists to find new ways of meeting increasingly complex health needs in the most cost-effective way.

Dr Tu Youyou’s research changed the course of history because she was unrelenting in her research for a treatment for malaria. As the world’s health needs evolve, we need the same commitment from researchers in every field in order to make the world fair, healthier, and safer.

I wish you every success.

Thank you. Xie Xie.