Guest Blog: Ben Simms, Chief Executive of THET - Universal Health Coverage Day

This week's we are featuring a blog post from Ben Simms, Chief Executive of THET to commemorate this year's Universal Health Coverage Day on Saturday 12th December. THET is a global health organisation which supports and helps to train health workers, enabling people in low and middle income countries to access essential healthcare.


In the world today, one in seven people will never see a qualified health worker in their lives.
It’s a sobering fact for people who, like me, have grown up with the certainties of the NHS.

It’s a devastating fact if you are living in the countries where UK Aid is focused. As Secretary of State Justine Greening pointed out in her speech to conference this year: “Healthy people are a prerequisite for a healthy economy.”

And there are consequences too for the UK, to be seen in the economic migration that flows from a lack of access to healthcare and economic failure, smaller volumes of trade, and in the danger of countries not being able to manage risks that pose global threats – the recent Ebola outbreak being a wake-up call in this respect.

That is why, today, I encourage everyone to mark Universal Health Coverage Day.

This year, UHC Day has added poignancy because it falls on the eve of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

For those working in global health, the renewed focus the SDGs bring on Universal Health Coverage brings great hope, tempered with a strong dose of realism.

The World Health Organisation has crunched the numbers. In the next twenty years, 40 to 50 million new healthcare workers will need to be trained and deployed to meet need. On present trajectories, we will come nowhere close.

That is why DFID’s recent publication UK aid: Tackling global challenges in the national interest is to be welcomed as a useful contribution to thinking in the ‘SDG era’.

The paper does two things. First, it picks up on the fact that the health of one nation impacts directly on the health of another. We are in this together. Mutuality is key.

Secondly, it invites us to find new ways of doing ‘international development’, and to achieve greater impact.

At the heart of the analysis is the recognition that there are some things Britain does well, and these are areas we should focus on as we look to boost partnerships between UK institutions and their counterparts in the developing world.

The NHS is one such example, as the Secretary of State highlighted in her conference speech when praising NHS doctors and nurses who volunteered to respond to the Ebola crisis.

Away from the publicity of Ebola, the linking of UK NHS institutions with counterparts in the developing world has been turbo-charged over the past four years by DFID’s £30 million Health Partnership Scheme, run by Tropical Health and Education Trust. Over this period more than 1,700 NHS professionals have volunteered in 29 countries as part of a Health Partnership and trained over 50,000 health workers, many of whom are now going on to train others.

Take for example, the work of The Royal College of Midwives, who have worked in partnership with midwifery associations in Uganda, Liberia, Cambodia and Nepal to improve midwifery training and care for mothers and children. As well as developing 13 new protocols and 17 medical curricula – including at degree level – the 362 midwives who have been trained have gone on to train a further 3620 midwives. An impressive contribution to reducing child and maternal mortality.

Such links between NHS institutions and health institutions overseas are not new in themselves, but they are a new way of thinking about how we ‘do aid’, because at their heart is the idea of reciprocity, the idea that the NHS staff who engage in training health workers overseas benefits from the kind of professional growth that brings great benefits to the delivery of healthcare back in the UK, a statement now being supported with a growing body of research evidence.

This approach of linking NHS institutions with health services overseas also provides an opportunity to do things at scale, allowing the UK to have a meaningful impact on the world’s efforts to get to UHC because it brings new players into the equation. This will not all be done by flying UK professionals overseas. We need to be clever in using technology to work at a distance. Our current efforts are scratching the surface of what could be achieved, a “drop in the ocean” as the International Development Committee recently stated.

Health partnerships are therefore at the centre of what we must consider as we look to implement UK aid: Tackling global challenges in the national interest.

This Universal Health Coverage Day I invite CFID supporters to join with me in celebrating the contribution NHS staff are making in the world’s poorest countries, and celebrate the benefit this brings to us back in the UK.

Ben Simms is the chief executive of THET, the organisation at the forefront of supporting partnerships that engage health professionals in the UK as global health volunteers.
Ben was previously director of STOPAIDS, the network of 80 UK agencies working to secure an effective global response to HIV and AIDS and has worked extensively in health across Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.