72nd WHA: Global Health Policy Decisions That Will Impact the Role of Nurses

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Delegates at the World Health Assembly during the opening of the first plenary meeting.
72nd World Health Assembly Delegates. Image via: WHO.int

For the nursing profession, the declaration of 2020 as Year of the Nurse and Midwife was the highlight of the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA) held from May 20-18. There were, however, other significant policy decisions which impact on the future role of nurses and our advocacy for the communities we serve.

The WHA is the decision making body of the World Health Organization (WHO). Here, delegations from all member states take the decisions which direct global health policy and the work of the WHO. During the 72nd WHA, a delegation of 80 nurses from the International Council of Nurses (ICN) represented the voice of the world’s 20 million nurses. They made inputs on various agenda items relevant to nurses and the nursing profession.

72nd World Health Assembly (WHA)
Delegates during the 72nd World Health Assembly (WHA) | WHO.int

Universal Health Coverage

Universal Health Coverage (UHC), as part of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, is one of the overarching aims of the WHO. The WHA adopted three resolutions related to UHC.

They agreed to take measures to implement the Declaration of Astana, adopted at the 2018 Global Conference on Primary Health Care (PHC). This recognizes primary health care as the key to providing all the health services which everyone needs throughout their life.    

The key role of trained and effectively supervised community health workers, as part of the multidisciplinary team, was recognized. They are part of, and trusted, by local people. It also provides employment, especially for women.

Member states also agreed to accelerate UHC, particularly for the poor and vulnerable by supporting preparations for the high-level United Nations meeting on UHC in September this year.  “I cannot emphasize strongly enough what a decisive moment for public health the High-Level Meeting could be,” said Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, in his closing remarks. “A strong declaration, with strong political support, could transform the lives of billions of people, in realizing what we have always advocated for – health for all.”

On the topic of UHC, the ICN stressed the need for a strong health workforce for effective PHC services.  They called on governments to invest in quality education, recruitment and retention strategies – including good working environments and fair pay.

72nd World Health Assembly (WHA)
Associates attend to proposals on health workforce during the technical briefing | WHO.int

Preventive health intervention

The environment has a significant impact on people’s health, with risks including physical, chemical, biological and work-related factors.

Member states agreed on a new global strategy on health, environment and climate change – a way forward on how the world and the health community should respond to the health risks and challenges in the environment.

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The WHA also committed to prioritizing safe water, sanitation and hygiene services (WASH) in all health facilities. As many as 1 in 4 health care facilities lack basic water services and 1 in 5 have no sanitation services – putting patients at risk of infection.

The NHA also agreed to increase action to prevent non-communicable diseases (NCD’S) – especially cancer, diabetes, heart and lung diseases of which too many people are dying too young. Here the ICN pointed out how nurses are increasingly providing quality and cost-effective management of patients with NCD’s. They called on member states to support advanced nursing practice roles and to allow nurses to work to their full potential.

Issues in health care delivery

Patent safety was recognized as a global health priority – across the world patient harm in healthcare settings is one of the leading causes of death and disability. In the future, September 17 will be World Patient Safety Day.

The ICN emphasized that patient safety was of utmost importance to nurses. They urged governments to invest in safe nurse staffing as a proven and cost-effective way to prevent adverse incidents in health care settings.

Other key resolutions included a common approach to antimicrobial resistance with emphasis on infection prevention and control; working towards better and faster emergency services; and enhancing the transparency of pricing for medicines, vaccines, and other health products in order to improve access.

Furthermore, the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) was adopted. This fully digitized and easier to use edition will come into effect on 1 January 2022.

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WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during the opening of the 72nd World Health Assembly
WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during the opening of the 72nd World Health Assembly. | REUTERS / Denis Balibouse

Global cooperation

In his closing remarks, Dr. Ghebreyesus noted that the proceedings of the WHA demonstrated that international cooperation was alive and well and that the only way to address all the challenges was by working together.

“We must all resolve to translate our work this week into policies, programs, and actions that deliver results…… All roads should lead to universal health coverage,” he said. “Celebrate our achievements. Commit to the work ahead of us. Keep ourselves accountable. These are my three messages.”

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