All posts by Natalie E Asalgado

We Still Need a Grand Vision

The WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. The Declaration of Alma-Ata cited this definition of health to emphasize the right to health for all and, thus, urge governments to implement comprehensive national health systems. As we discussed during lecture and section, the broad scope of this declaration was greatly criticized. The declaration set unrealistic expectations because it posed immeasurable, and seemingly unattainable, goals to achieve better health for all around the globe. In spite of all these criticisms, primary health care has set the standards for today’s expectations for health systems precisely because it encompasses a grand vision: health as a fundamental right.

The Declaration of Alma-Ata was a great tool for setting the framework around global health; it incited all countries to consider the health of their people and how these people were accessing the health care system. As broad as the overarching mission to implement primary health care was in scope, it served as the foundation for the “Primary Health Care movement,” which has trickled into today’s ambitions. For example, the WHO’s World Health Report of 2008 emphasized placing people and their health needs at the forefront of health care. In addition, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, World Bank Group and WHO just came together in September to form a new partnership, the Primary Health Care Performance Initiative (PHCPI). The PHCPI’s aim is “to support [low- and middle-income] countries in improving the performance of primary health care.” It will help countries monitor, track, and share their key vital signs, which include information about the health system as a country’s priority, service delivery, and the delivery of better outcomes. In this manner, primary health care will continue to address the social determinants of health, but on a country-by-country basis. However, I wonder how exactly these three powerful organizations will work with other countries’ community values instead of imposing their own values.

In addition to addressing social determinants of health, primary health care also focuses on the need to improve value for patients, “where value is defined as the health outcomes achieved that matter to patients relative to the cost of achieving those outcomes.” (HBR) In this manner, we should be able to improve outcomes without increasing associated costs or decrease costs without worsening the outcome, thereby obtaining better health for all. The overall aim is ensure that everyone is achieving the best outcomes at the lowest costs, that we are offering a ‘ preferential option for the poor’. Yet, to what extent is this ‘preferential option for the poor’ influenced by and idealized in Western settings? Primary health care is supposed to avoid the elements of paternalism that are so prevalent among the “magic bullets,” like antiretroviral drugs and regional and global vaccination campaigns.

Magic bullets have the benefit of being simpler and more cost-effective than longer-term goals, but also distal to the social determinants of health. The global eradication of smallpox, for example, failed to address the more pressing concerns that the last communities with smallpox were facing. Further, it raised questions about the ethical implications of taking a vertical approach: How important is it to vaccinate all resistant individuals? Will this actually benefit all global citizens? Should we be more concerned with hazards, like smoke accumulating in houses when someone cooks or water contamination? These more narrow, yet measurable goals that are characteristic of vertical approaches and selective primary health care often detract from the social determinants of health, thereby ignoring the “causes of the causes” that negatively impact health.

Interestingly enough, other kinds of “magic bullets” dealing with HIV/AIDS don’t necessarily avoid social determinants of health altogether, but rather create what Dr. Adia Benton calls “methodological horizontality.” In this way, we do not place our sole focus on the disease and targeted clinical interventions or only promote evidence-based interventions to obtain funding. This combination of vertical and horizontal programmatic approaches allows us to address HIV/AIDS diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up while also conducting other health programming. Would this approach work for all diseases? Can we simultaneously work toward providing truly accessible, affordable, and coordinated primary health care and also address problems that require specialized care?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do we need a global framework for primary health care? Or can other countries interpret primary health care as they see fit for their needs and, thus, develop nation-specific primary health care?
  2. Can we ever truly eliminate elements of paternalism from our (American) international health efforts?
  3. How can all nations work toward providing truly accessible, affordable, and coordinated primary health care to then be able to address problems that require specialized care?



Benton, Adia. HIV Exceptionalism: Development Through Disease in Sierra Leone. U of Minnesota, 2015.

Bryant, J. H., and J. B. Richmond. “Alma-Ata and Primary Health Care: An Evolving Story.” Health Systems Policy, Finance, and Organization. By Guy Carrin. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Academic, 2009. 59-81.

Cueto, M. “The Origins of Primary Health Care and Selective Primary Health Care.” American Journal of Public Health, 2004. 94(11)1864-74.

Greenough, P. “Intimidation, Coercion, and Resistance in the Final Stages of the South Asian Smallpox Eradication Campaign, 1973-1975.” Social Science and Medicine, 2005. 41(5): 633-645.

Lerberghe, Wim Van, Tim Evans, Kumanan Rasanathan, and Abdelhay Mechbal. The World Health Report 2008. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization, 2008.

Porter, Michael E., and Thomas H. Lee. “The Strategy That Will Fix Health Care.” Harvard Business Review. 01 Oct. 2013.

World Health Organization. “New Partnership to Help Countries Close Gaps in Primary Health Care.” World Health Organization. 26 Sept. 2015.