Energy Access and Health Services

By Huda Jaffer, Selco Foundation

Access to basic health services is a fundamental right for any citizen in any part of the planet. But that is not the case for people living in poorer parts of the world. Inefficiencies of delivery models, higher transaction costs, lack of skilled human resources etc. are some of the challenges that have prevented reliable delivery of health services. Simple services like diagnostics or hygienic methods of maternal deliveries are a luxury for most of the populations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the non-inclusivity of health services to the poor; be it in the developed or the developing world. The primary focus of the health sector has moved away from being ‘end-user’ centric to being ‘economic’ centric. Most of the stakeholders have encouraged the health eco-system to become a product-based rather than a need-based model. Manufacturers focus innovation on creating sophisticated medical equipment, with value-added features, rather than on technology that can reach the masses in low resource settings, which further pushes a centralized healthcare model. The poor limit their choices of availing health services based on income levels and insurance. Availability of human resources and corresponding skill sets depend on the availability of financial resources in a selected area. Health, a basic service, has become selective and exclusive.

The poorer populations in Asia and Africa, remain poor primarily because of non-availability of critical health services at the time of need. According to the World Economic Forum:

An estimated 400 million people in the world lack access to basic health services, while millions are pushed into extreme poverty each year because of out-of-pocket healthcare costs. The burden of this lack of universal health coverage (UHC) is largely placed on Africa and Asia, where 97% of the population are impoverished by out-of-pocket health spending. These regions have the fastest increase in populations facing catastrophic health expenditures (defined as having to spend 30% or more on health products and services). In Africa, an estimated 11 million people fall into poverty every year through using their household income to access healthcare services, medicines and products.”

The pandemic has forced stakeholders to question existing models of delivering essential services like health and education. Centralization of these services has led to disastrous consequences as observed even in countries like Unites States and Italy.

Providing reliable health services is a powerful tool to get people out of poverty. Sustainable Energies combined with efficiencies of health technologies can be one of the most critical components of democratizing the delivery of health around the world.  However, it is also naively assumed that simple access to energy itself can catalyze appropriate health services. Similar presumptions could lead to more expensive solutions that then hinders the replication of the delivery models.

As in the case of electricity sector, decentralized energies like solar have disrupted and can further disrupt the delivery models making it available in a more modular form and thus making it affordable at multiple levels. Availability of sustainable energies in a decentralized mode also pushes innovations in health technologies, pushes for increase in efficiencies of medical devices and gives rise to newer delivery models for last mile populations. Sustainable energies for healthcare centers in poorer countries and contexts is a critical catalyst given any chance of meeting health and allied SDGs within the 2030 mark.

Many of the challenges plaguing the health sector around the world can be solved. Highly efficient medical equipment designed for low resources, both energy and availability of skilled human resources, overcome the challenges of poor equipment and skill set. These equipment’s can be powered by solar energies in the areas of operation, irrespective how remote or dense the local populations are. Locally trained personal can handle many of the issues, in addition to remote consultation from expert doctors around the country. Solar powered vaccine refrigerators will ensure the long-term quality of critical medicines. Well-designed public health centers run on solar, saves governments with expensive energy bills, while helping them meet their stated goal of providing universal health care.

Sierra Leone, for instance, a country of six million population, has less than 150 doctors and has the highest mortality rate in the world. An eco-system approach that creates a nexus between health and sustainable energy could be one-way Sierra Leone can begin to reverse its current health status ranking. Highly efficient baby warmers, low power shadow less lights for operation theaters, solar powered cooled maternal rooms etc. are some of the equipment’s that previously being unavailable for the poor can now be accessible and affordable. Utilization of internet technologies will further lead to robustness of the health system.

Sustainable energies and health services should no longer be considered as a luxury. One needs to move away from man-made boundaries and view health service as something that we need for betterment of mankind – rich, poor, developed or in underdeveloped nations. One can surely calculate the cost of putting one solar powered maternal room in Sierra Leone, but can it be calculated for every woman, who is losing her life because of non-availability of health service at the doorstep. The woman might have a Sierra Leonese citizenship, but she is also a citizen of the world. In the 21st century, it is unfathomable to imagine people are losing their lives because man-made factors prevent everyone from availing it. Time has come to democratize healthcare at the doorstep of the poor and sustainable energy is a powerful tool in making that a reality.

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