Health system fragmentation is common in low- and middle-income countries. Most countries in Latin America have fragmented health systems with many different health coverage schemes – none of which are universal, and most of which exclude the poorest and most vulnerable patients. The result? A large proportion of patients who need care the most cannot access it, especially for complex chronic diseases like cancer.
What is health system fragmentation?
Health system fragmentation happens when there are many different health “subsystems” that coexist, providing care for different parts of a country’s population. Each of these subsystems has their own way of financing and delivering healthcare, and each provides healthcare to different types of people. For example, one subsystem will provide coverage for government workers, another will cover formally employed persons, and yet another will attempt to provide basic health benefits for the unemployed, etc.
What is the problem?
The problem is that when these subsystems operate independently from one another, they create major gaps in the provision of health services, often leaving out the poorest patients. Overall, fragmented health systems are less efficient, and provide fewer resources to those who need care the most, leading to great health inequities throughout a country. The issues arising from health system fragmentation are compounded by the fact that many health systems are not well funded by government spending in the first place, especially for chronic diseases like cancer. In fact, while Latin America spends an average of 7.7% of its GDP on cancer care, the U.S. spent nearly 18% of its GDP. Now imagine this small amount of money being used inefficiently and spread over a much larger population. Low- and middle-income countries represent 85% of the world’s population and 61% of new cancer cases globally, but they account for only 6% of global expenditures on cancer care.
A major barrier to accessing care
Fragmented health systems are very difficult for patients to navigate. Trying to move from a primary care center to a more specialized cancer center can be confusing, difficult, or even impossible if a patient doesn’t have proper insurance coverage. Because of this, fragmentation causes delays in diagnosis and initiating treatment, leading to late-stage disease and high mortality rates. Patients throughout Latin America have low screening rates, delayed referrals, and sometimes won’t even seek medical help because of these barriers.
“Catastrophic out-of-pocket expenses”
When health systems are fragmented (and not well-funded to begin with), they require high out-of-pocket expenses from patients at the hospital when they seek health care. Now imagine a family without health insurance, or even an inadequate public health insurance. If a member of that family is diagnosed with cancer, they would face health payments that would drive them into poverty – what we call “catastrophic out-of-pocket expenses.” In 2008, it was estimated that ⅓ of the people in Latin America were considered at high risk for such impoverishment due to catastrophic health expenditures.
Moving toward Universal Health Coverage
The WHO, in partnership with the World Bank, developed an agenda in 2015 to move towards universal health coverage (UHC) worldwide. It is clear that there are major gaps in the provisions of healthcare around the world: over 400 million people do not have access to one or more essential health services. Universal health coverage, in the form of national insurance schemes provided by governments, would not only ensure that basic health care is provided to everyone in that country, but would make the provision of health services more efficient and more equitable.
Importantly, the move toward basic universalism is targeted towards the poorest sectors – the most vulnerable patients with the most barriers to care. Latin American countries have begun to move in this direction by creating special agencies to provide basic care for those who were previously uninsured. Due to this expansion of basic coverage, the proportion of people covered by insurance systems in Latin America grew from 46% to 60% between 2008 and 2013.
How to improve patient care now
The move toward universal health coverage will take time and will be more difficult for some countries than others. However, there are ways we can work within the broken systems that currently exist to help patients access the care they desperately need now. For example, through our Patient Navigation Programs, navigators facilitate patients’ passage through fragmented and complex health systems. They help underserved patients access health resources and overcome barriers they may encounter while trying to get cancer care, like making referral appointments and coordinating insurance paperwork. By providing patients with a knowledgeable resource and support system, navigators can help alleviate some of those systematic barriers to care that would usually stop patients in their tracks when trying to access the care they need.
The information and data in this post are summarized from our Lancet Oncology commissions: Planning Cancer Control in Latin America and the Caribbean and Progress and Remaining Challenges for Cancer Control in Latin America and the Caribbean