Ensuring greater access to affordable health care is a crucial factor in alleviating poverty and promoting economic growth, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said Friday while announcing ambitious targets for preventing and treating chronic illnesses in developing countries.
About 100 million people are impoverished by medical expenses each year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The World Bank and WHO aim by 2020 to reduce this number by half each year and by 2030 to eliminate it.
The consensus among many familiar with development and poverty alleviation is that providing universal health coverage is vital for economic development, said officials attending a conference in Tokyo.
Government ministers from developing nations around the world were invited to the one-day conference in Tokyo, hosted jointly by the World Bank and the Japanese government.
The gathering was aimed at spreading the adoption of universal health care to developing nations, emphasizing how it could boost growth.
Japan, which extended universal coverage to its entire population in 1961, benefited enormously from that investment, as strong public health supported the expansion of a highly productive middle class, Kim said.
"The fact is that Japan committed to universal health coverage when its per capita income was not at the highest levels, and many people thought it could not afford it," said Kim, a physician.
Under the Japanese public health system, a patient pays up to 30 percent of their medical bills, with the remaining costs paid from a social insurance scheme and general taxation.
Open-access health care is "one of the best things you can do to spur immediate and long-term economic growth ... and one way of reducing inequality (which can) slow economic growth," Kim told the meeting.
The World Bank and WHO also intend to double access to affordable basic services such as vaccinations and deliveries to 80 percent of the poor in developing countries by 2020. By 2030 that number should also be able to get treatment for injuries and for such chronic problems as high blood pressure, diabetes and mental illness.
"Universal health coverage is financially feasible and makes good economic sense," said WHO director general Margaret Chan. "It is the ultimate expression of fairness. People are not left behind to die."