World health report

Introduction and Overview

Responding to the challenges of a changing world

On the whole, people are healthier, wealthier and live longer today than 30 years ago. If children were still dying at 1978 rates, there would have been 16.2 million deaths globally in 2006. In fact, there were only 9.5 million such deaths9. This difference of 6.7 million is equivalent to 18 329 children’s lives being saved every day. The once revolutionary notion of essential drugs has become commonplace. There have been significant improvements in access to water, sanitation and antenatal care.

This shows that progress is possible. It can also be accelerated. There have never been more resources available for health than now. The global health economy is growing faster than gross domestic product (GDP), having increased its share from 8% to 8.6% of the world’s GDP between 2000 and 2005. In absolute terms, adjusted for inflation, this represents a 35% growth in the world’s expenditure on health over a five-year period. Knowledge and understanding of health are growing rapidly. The accelerated technological revolution is multiplying the potential for improving health and transforming health literacy in a better-educated and modernizing global society. A global stewardship is emerging: from intensified exchanges between countries, often in recognition of shared threats, challenges or opportunities; from growing solidarity; and from the global commitment to eliminate poverty exemplified in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

However, there are other trends that must not be ignored. First, the substantial progress in health over recent decades has been deeply unequal, with convergence towards improved health in a large part of the world, but at the same time, with a considerable number of countries increasingly lagging behind or losing ground. Furthermore, there is now ample documentation – not available 30 years ago – of considerable and often growing health inequalities within countries.

Second, the nature of health problems is changing in ways that were only partially anticipated, and at a rate that was wholly unexpected. Ageing and the effects of ill-managed urbanization and globalization accelerate worldwide transmission of communicable diseases, and increase the burden of chronic and noncommunicable disorders. The growing reality that many individuals present with complex symptoms and multiple illnesses challenges service delivery to develop more integrated and comprehensive case management. A complex web of interrelated factors is at work, involving gradual but longterm increases in income and population, climate change, challenges to food security, and social tensions, all with definite, but largely unpredictable, implications for health in the years ahead.

Third, health systems are not insulated from the rapid pace of change and transformation that is an essential part of today’s globalization. Economic and political crises challenge state and institutional roles to ensure access, delivery and financing. Unregulated commercialization is accompanied by a blurring of the boundaries between public and private actors, while the negotiation of entitlement and rights is increasingly politicized. The information age has transformed the relations between citizens, professionals and politicians.

In many regards, the responses of the health sector to the changing world have been inadequate and naïve. Inadequate, insofar as they not only fail to anticipate, but also to respond appropriately: too often with too little, too late or too much in the wrong place. Naïve insofar as a system’s failure requires a system’s solution – not a temporary remedy. Problems with human resources for public health and health care, finance, infrastructure or information systems invariably extend beyond the narrowly defined health sector, beyond a single level of policy purview and, increasingly, across borders: this raises the benchmark in terms of working effectively across government and stakeholders.

While the health sector remains massively under-resourced in far too many countries, the resource base for health has been growing consistently over the last decade. The opportunities this growth offers for inducing structural changes and making health systems more effective and equitable are often missed. Global and, increasingly, national policy formulation processes have focused on single issues, with various constituencies competing for scarce resources, while scant attention is given to the underlying constraints that hold up health systems development in national contexts. Rather than improving their response capacity and anticipating new challenges, health systems seem to be drifting from one short-term priority to another, increasingly fragmented and without a clear sense of direction.

Today, it is clear that left to their own devices, health systems do not gravitate naturally towards the goals of health for all through primary health care as articulated in the Declaration of Alma- Ata. Health systems are developing in directions that contribute little to equity and social justice and fail to get the best health outcomes for their money. Three particularly worrisome trends can be characterized as follows:

  • health systems that focus disproportionately on a narrow offer of specialized curative care;
  • health systems where a command-and-control approach to disease control, focused on shortterm results, is fragmenting service delivery;
  • health systems where a hands-off or laissez-faire approach to governance has allowed unregulated commercialization of health to flourish.

These trends fly in the face of a comprehensive and balanced response to health needs. In a number of countries, the resulting inequitable access, impoverishing costs, and erosion of trust in health care constitute a threat to social stability.


9. World Health Statistics 2008. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2008.