Universal Health Coverage: palliative care’s brass ring

To go for the brass ring (def) “to try to succeed in an area where there is a lot of competition” (Collins English Dictionary) The term comes from the practice of giving a free ride to the person who succeeded in picking a ring out of a box while riding a merry-go-round. [Slang; late 1800s]

Why grab the brass ring?

Universal Health Coverage, or UHC, has to do with money, both public and private, and what health services that money covers. Ideally, these services are to be universal, meaning all inhabitants of a country are entitled to them. It is debatable whether publicly funded palliative care is universally available in any country. What palliative care provision there is around the world is randomly and precariously funded by charities, faith based organisations, and private individuals, and is far from being universally available. This unsustainable “coverage” situation cannot meet the growing public health needs of aging populations suffering from both communicable and non-communicable diseases, including chronic conditions such as dementia. Palliative care is now a rapidly developing clinical discipline. It is unethical for governments to delegate its provision to the charitable or private sector.

The vision inscribed in the WHO definition of UHC is that “all people and communities can use the promotive, preventive, curative, rehabilitative and palliative health services they need, of sufficient quality to be effective, while also ensuring that the use of these services does not expose the user to financial hardship.” An opportunity to develop and promote this vision is coming in September, when the United Nations will convene a “High Level Meeting” on Universal Health Coverage in New York. Heads of State who attend, or their official representatives, will adopt a consensus political declaration that reflects their policy commitments regarding coverage plans. Negotiations on the text may be ongoing until September.

The latest draft text of the political declaration (at the time of writing) includes two references to palliative care, one of which flags the need to develop services for older persons with chronic conditions. Although this double inclusion represents rhetorical progress at the multilateral (UN) level, the challenge is to join up the dots at the regional and national levels. National palliative care associations will be key players here once the political declaration is adopted with this consensus language. This will provide an opportunity (the “brass ring”) for governments and WHO country offices to familiarise themselves with service providers on the ground, and to enlist their collaboration in the drafting and implementation of comprehensive national plans. The stakes of grabbing that brass ring are very high — for palliative care patients, their families, providers, and healthcare systems themselves. Without UHC, and without integrated palliative care, the “curative” services patients currently “use” at their own expense in most countries, expose them and their families to serious financial hardship. What preventive and promotive services do exist fail to protect households from the financial hardship associated with futile “curative” treatments when these come “too late.” Palliative care can avert some of that hardship that by convening honest conversations about goals of care, from the beside to the health system. Without it, medical professionals are railroaded into “doing everything” and households are driven deeper into the “health poverty trap.” This is why achieving UHC is included in Target 3.8 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UHC 2030

One problem with the wording of WHO’s definition of UHC is that it addresses only health system users. The vast majority of the world’s people with serious health problems are not health system “users” and have no access to preventive or curative services, let alone palliative care. The UHC political declaration under negotiation must include a commitment to provide accessible basic services to the currently invisible populations experiencing serious health related suffering in unserved locations. Palliative care advocates can identify these invisible populations and consult with governments to establish appropriate, publicly funded services.

The recent Chatham House (CH) briefing “Closing the global access abyss in palliative care and pain relief – A top priority in achieving Universal Health Coverage” was convened to analyse the abyss and discuss how to promote palliative care as an essential service of UHC. Participants agreed on the indivisibility of the spectrum, which ideally should prevent and treat much of the suffering palliative care practitioners now address and accompany when “nothing more can be done.” This is an ethically unacceptable state of affairs from a systems perspective.

Again, ideally, palliative care should fill the key health needs of populations whose mortality is no longer preventable or treatable in a public health system that meets basic needs. Appropriately addressing the needs of this population will liberate sections of the healthcare system that are currently jammed up with futile procedures, rescue medicine, and communications that sell false hopes for a cure. According to one researcher at the Chatham House meeting, doctors and administrators need to understand how palliative care can help them do their jobs as cardiologists, GPs, etc. Those who see palliative care as a rival for scarce professional recognition and resources act as a barrier to palliative care development.  

Ms Claire Morris, Advocacy Manager for the Worldwide Hospice Palliative Care Alliance discussing UHC with Dr. Jane Bates, a palliative care physician who works in Malawi, and Ms. Lilatoul Ferdous, RN. Palliative Care Society of Bangladesh.

Indeed, one senior palliative care physician at the CH meeting identified the medical profession itself as both a cause and accomplice to suffering: “We need to start discussing the fact that doctors don’t feel it is their job to relieve suffering.” The profession is an accomplice to serious financial and existential suffering when it engages in therapeutic obstinacy. Palliative care providers often get patients and families who have been battered by the healthcare system already and have lost their only source of income and stability. Serious illness doesn’t subtract only one family member from the economy, it also subtracts at least one caregiver, who is either a wage earner, grandparent or a student who has to drop out of school. Establishing community level palliative care supports households and local economies, the basis of sustainable development.

Meeting process: the meeting was legitimated by inclusion of service users (“affected populations”) from the UK and Uganda, patients whose lives have been improved and extended by palliative care, including appropriate use of opioid analgesics. All had received palliative care for serious health related suffering, including for HIV/AIDS, cancer, and rare genetic conditions. They demanded patient involvement in all stages of the advocacy, policy development and implementation processes. All who spoke at the meeting, both live and through video link, emphasized the fact that, without palliative care they either would be dead, or better off dead. They discussed how palliative care’s support for their participation in family and public life has converted them into policy evangelists. See here and here for outstanding examples of service user advocacy.

Palliative care service providers from resource challenged settings in India, Kenya, and a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh testified after the service users. The refugee camp workers contrasted the generosity of private donors and tenacity of frontline providers with the support vacuum of governmental and inter-governmental agencies. This unsustainable situation is a microcosm of the challenges facing all societies experiencing ever greater burdens of chronic and non-communicable, as well as communicable diseases. Grabbing the brass ring entails persuading governments to provide public funding, require palliative care education, ensure adequate access to controlled medicines, and partner with providers already working in the field.

The global palliative care community can show member states the way forward through our own internal collaborations, practice, and ethos. We can model the way by including affected communities – patients, families, volunteers, and caregivers —  as equal partners alongside clinical and policy professionals. The challenge is to give authentic “voice” ad-voc to those who receive and provide services. The Chatham House meeting was a terrific example of this inclusionary ethos. Patients and practitioners had the floor first, upending the usual protocols. The WHO DDG was called on to respond to them, rather than vice-versa.


On the CH briefing table were the topics of funding, leadership, and the ongoing challenge of addressing inequitable global access to opioid analgesics, especially in the fraught context of the WHO withdrawal of two key guidelines on balanced policy and prescribing. Speakers expressed frustration that the opioid crisis in the north was overshadowing and negatively affecting the opioid access crisis in the global south. Leading providers of palliative care in both India and Uganda, who have successfully fought for improved availability of oral morphine in their facilities, have testified to the fact that the oral morphine they have provided to tens of thousands of patients over the years is not diverted and abused in their institutions. In qualified hands, generic oral morphine has life-giving, and life-saving value. This provider testimony to non-diversion confirms the finding of the 2019 World Drug Report, which states that the vast majority of morphine seized by law enforcement authorities was illicitly manufactured, not diverted from the pharmaceutical supply chain. Once again, it is key to include the voices of patients and providers discussing their experience of safe morphine use for severe pain and breathlessness.

Funding Without philanthropic funding, hospices around the world are going under and reducing their capacity to serve patients. As the Chair of the Lancet Commission on the Value of Death, referring to the charity shops that underwrite most British hospices, said “No one would dream of funding cardiology and osteopathy by selling old clothes, so why are doing it with hospice and palliative care?”[1] Dr. Anne Merriman, founder of Hospice Africa Uganda (HAU) the beacon of palliative care and morphine availability in Africa, was on late night BBC TV recently begging for a billionaire because HAU’s charitable funding has dried up, and the government has not stepped forward to pay the tab. Since Uganda, like many “developing” countries, sends its elites abroad for treatment at public expense, few policymakers are viscerally aware of the situation in government clinics and hospitals. Universal Health Coverage, properly initiated and established, and including the voices of both providers and patients, should fill the identified palliative care service gaps in all countries. This requires governments to engage with national palliative care associations whose members are already doing the work. Representatives of those associations will have to make the first move and grab the brass ring!

The absence of any participants from either the UK government, specifically DFID, or the UK Hospice movement troubled participants at the CH meeting, who identified the UK as the “birthplace” of the global hospice/palliative care movement and a potentially global leader for publicly funded palliative care. The philanthropically funded aid pot is shrinking and the responsibility for sustainability lies fair and square with national governments to design, fund, and implement UHC policies for populations that use, and do not yet use services. It’s up to palliative care patients, professional associations and policy advocates to help their governments grab the brass ring of UHC by convincing them a) that it’s doable, and b) that the social and financial returns on investment will far outweigh the initial costs of health system strengthening and workforce training.

[1] He agreed to be quoted for this piece.

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