A simple glance at the healthcare sector during a pandemic shows us how medical professionals are moving to the very centre of attention across the world. If this is the case, then, how come their work is still challenged by things like financial stress, logistics for supply of tools and equipment, and equal access to safety? We are also starting to see that, other than these short-term challenges, there are also long-term implications to the disruptions caused by COVID-19 – that see the need for the spotlight to keep shining on this sector for years to come.
Upon learning of Dr Natasha Azzopardi Muscat’s prestigious appointment as WHO Director of Policies and Health Systems in Europe, and as a member of the EU Expert Panel on Effective Ways of Investing in Health, Newspoint had a chat with her on how, through her roles, she will tackle the imminent priority of health in this critically important time.
On why the health sector deserves to be at the heart of recovery post-COVID-19
At the moment, it is very important to ensure that the health sector remains at the heart of the social and economic recovery process. Health systems need to use the current circumstances to learn lessons from COVID-19 and strengthen health systems going forward. COVID-19 has served to highlight the burden of non-communicable diseases since people with chronic conditions were more likely to suffer disability or die from COVID-19. There is also an opportunity to build a better and healthier future, strengthen multilateralism and access to medicines, vaccines and technologies.
On the priorities to be addressed through these new roles
There are the priorities already set out in WHO’s 13th general programme of work, and these are namely to move towards universal health coverage, to protect against health threats and promote health and wellbeing. These are being adapted to the specific needs of the European Region through the European Programme of Work, which has its two main objectives, namely to accelerate health convergence within and between countries, leaving nobody behind and to strengthen leadership of health authorities.
On a personal note, mental health and digital health, are two topics I will be giving priority to. By digital health, I mean how technology and healthcare intersect through the combination of expertise and data management.
On how technology can be used to revolutionise the health sector
The health sector will be revolutionised through the impact of technology in the coming years. This however also erases issues with health inequalities and we need to ensure that the elderly and those with lower levels of digital literacy are not excluded. Furthermore, the humanity of care giving can be complemented by not replaced by technology. One of the challenges is definitely going to be equitable access to innovative technologies on a global level.
On making a difference on a larger scale
My role is to be the bridge between health services and policy makers. I like saying I have spent 20 years walking across the bridge between politicians on one hand and clinical colleagues on the other. This experience my colleagues and I have, coupled with health technology, has the potential to make waves.
On Malta’s timely response to COVID-19
We now know that countries which managed to keep patients with COVID-19 out of their hospitals as far as possible have been the most successful ones. Going forward, when strengthening our healthy systems after this pandemic, we definitely need to rethink how to better integrate primary care with hospital services. I believe the added experience of having better utilised digital health will lead to quicker and more significant progress.
On the usefulness of evidence-based science when making decisions
Research and evidence are the key to sound decision making. WHO bases its guidance on the best available evidence. Investment in research is needed on an ongoing basis in order to enable us to tackle some of the pervasive problems affecting health and wellbeing. In my role as UM academic at the Faculty of Health Sciences, I have also come to realise that especially in complex innovation ideas, coordinated actions can only go smoothly if everyone knows what works and what doesn’t.
Newspoint augurs Dr Azzopardi Muscat well in her new role and hopes she keeps inspiring many health professionals with her invaluable work.