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Spotlight on THET’s 2020 Annual Conference

20 October 2020


"The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out the best and worst of humankind…This common crisis can only be defeated by a common approach, built on solidarity and partnership which I know are at the heart of THET's ethos and work.” – Opening remarks from Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization

Solidarity. Quality. And hope. These were the three words that resonated through THET’s 2020 Annual Conference.

Bringing together over 450 voices from across the health and  development communities, the conference shone a spotlight on the challenges of the decade to come. “It felt incredibly important to stage the THET Conference this year”, reflected Charlotte Ashton who led the organising team. “When we started our detailed planning back in March, we were tempted to delay, but the direct and secondary impacts of COVID-19 made our gathering both necessary and vital. Thank you to all of you who joined to share your expertise so generously.”

The first of our annual conferences to take place online welcomed from across Africa, Asia and Latin America, championing the exchange of ideas and expertise across the world and was preceded by the announcement of the largest funding for Health Partnerships since 2011, the UK Partnerships for Health Systems programme.

Built around two key themes – Quality and Inclusion – the conference challenged us to recognise and address our conscious and unconscious biases as we work to achieve health for all. We are grateful to the eminent speakers who followed Dr Tedros, including: HE Dr Myint Htwe, Union Minister for Health and Sports in Myanmar; Wendy Morton, Minister for the European Neighbourhood and the Americas at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO); Professor Theresa Marteau, Director of Research, University of Cambridge, and Vaughan Gething, Welsh Minister for Health and Social Services, who provided us with an opportunity to determine how Health Partnerships can strengthen health systems for a future that is uncertain.

Of those who attended, 100%[1] felt that the conference improved their knowledge of global health. 100% would attend again in the future. And 100% would recommend the event to their peers. We are proud to share and celebrate this feedback with you – the THET Conference would not be possible without the support of our speakers, sponsors, exhibitors and delegates.

Although we are living in difficult times, the conference came to life through the unwavering commitment and enthusiasm of the Health Partnership community. Made possible through digital technology, partnerships are strengthening collaborations across borders to make progress towards quality healthcare for all despite COVID-19 and we look forward to these partnerships in the decade to come.

As a health worker, what do I need to be able to deliver quality healthcare? – Matthew Neilson, Consultant, Department of Integrated Health Services, WHO

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on people’s lives, both directly through the virus itself and indirectly through the problems it has created for the delivery of essential health services. It has shone a spotlight on the inadequacies of global health systems and brought into sharper focus the impact of inequalities. Dr Juliet Nabyonga-Orem, Team Leader, WHO Regional Office for Africa, expressed the view that COVID-19 makes the issue of inequality even more urgent: “We need to look into the groups that are excluded to better understand what needs to be done.” The urgency of this message was echoed by Diana Dalton, Head of the Inclusive Societies Department at the FCDO, who concluded that the pandemic has the potential to reverse decades of progress on GESI and push millions back into poverty.

While flights have been grounded and travel restricted, Health Partnerships have found innovative ways to adapt to our new global reality. As articulated by THET’s CEO, Ben Simms, over the past six months there have been myriad ways in which the human impulse for solidarity has expressed itself across the Health Partnership community. From procuring PPE for partners overseas to using digital technology to facilitate online training sessions, Health Partnerships are continuing to support one another across borders. Reflecting on resilience building and the impact of the pandemic on CwPAMS Health Partnerships, Victoria Rutter, Executive Director of the Commonwealth Pharmacist’s Association, illustrated that “it’s not just about the response of the partnerships to COVID-19, it’s about how the projects have actually prepared staff for COVID-19” both in Africa and the UK.

“Our partners have overcome the time differences, competing priorities and exhaustion to work and fight against COVID-19.” – Dr Thinn Thinn Hlaing, THET Country Director for Myanmar

Across all sessions, the unmistakable value of long-term partnership remained constant, embodied in the twenty-year partnership between Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Centre (KCMC). “There is no power play going on, people participate equally…the team come over and they do not take, they come and they leave skills” explained Dr Sara Urassa, Director of Hospital Services at KCMC. In the wake of COVID-19, the need for strong partnerships like this one and collaboration between stakeholders, sectors and governments has never been more critical if we are to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and ultimately universal health coverage (UHC).

“We go further when we work together. Collaborative partnerships are a proven model for driving progress in global health.” – Minister Wendy Morton, FCDO

Across the world, more people die from poor quality healthcare than they do from a lack of access to healthcare: between 5.7 and 8.4 million deaths are attributed to poor-quality care each year in LMICs, which accounts for up to 15% of overall deaths in these countries. Recognising that the overarching aim of UHC is for all people who need access to health services to receive high-quality care without financial hardship, we shone a spotlight on what more governments, health system leaders and health care workers can do to realise this ambition. It became clear that we must work together to ensure a high-quality health workforce, excellence across all health care facilities, safe and effective use of medicines, devices and other technologies, effective use of health information systems and to develop mechanisms that support continuous quality improvement. Dr Kerri Jones, QI Lead at Future Health Africa, argued that “quality improvement must be grounded in what matters to the people using the services”, while Sarah Jane Tierney, International Global Health Fellow sponsored by Health Education England, stressed the importance accounting for wider strategic objectives to avoid duplication and ensure improvements are sustained.

“Quality is not a given, it takes planning, investment, compassion, meticulous execution and rigorous monitoring, from the national level to the smallest, remotest clinic.” – Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization

In an era of COVID-19 and climate crisis, the approaches taken to ensure quality must make use of digital technology for health systems strengthening. Succinctly put by Dr Marion Lynch, COVID-19 Technical Advisor at THET, “not going virtual is no longer an option.” Acknowledging that this new approach is here to stay, we examined how Health Partnerships can make the most of opportunities that present themselves through digital technology in a world after lockdowns, both in terms of quality improvement and connectivity between partners. The technology that facilitates peer to peer learning through online platforms and events such as our annual conference also enables the Health Partnership model to move beyond training to allow for ongoing peer support and mentoring. Across the Health Partnership community, technology is providing for the rapid and low-cost exchange of views and advice, while also helping to sustain relationships built up over time. As Laura Hucks, Partnerships Director for King’s Global Health Partnerships, reminded us, sustaining these relationships and ensuring long-term partnerships remain effective is essential to the quality improvement process.

Digital learning is an accelerator for building human resources for health: it opens up access to new communities and younger generations, while costs of training are lower.” – Diana Mukami, Digital Learning Director, Amref Health Africa

What might partnership look like in the context of increasing uncertainties? – Aku Kwamie, Technical Officer at the World Health Organization

We could not have foreseen how the first year of this Decade of Delivery would play out. With great advances in health achieved at home and abroad over the last century under unprecedented strain – infectious diseases on the rise, 60 million people on the move, displaced by conflict, natural disasters, and climate change, and the world facing a health worker shortage of 13 million by 2035 – COVID-19 was not even on the agenda as our conference planning began. Yet in spite of all of this, never has the UK health community been more globalized and interconnected and, as the conference has shown, the Health Partnership community continues to play a critical role in solving some of the world’s common health challenges.

“We must hold on to hope and reject the phrase ‘nothing more can be done’ in order to regain a sense of empowerment.” – Dr Farzana Khan, Executive Director, Fasiuddin Khan Research Foundation

The launch of the UK Partnerships for Health Systems (UKPHS) programme at this year’s conference could not have been timelier. The programme aims to support LMICs build stronger, more resilient health systems and make progress towards UHC through improved health service performance for vulnerable populations. The programme will enable partnerships to address gaps in skills and knowledge to prevent and treat COVID-19, promote the safety and well-being of health workers in LMICs, and provide support so that essential health services can be provided in spite of COVID-19 risks and pressures. To find out more and to apply, please click here.

In a time of unprecedented strain on health systems and services, the conference focussed our attention on the importance of Leaving No One Behind, whilst highlighting the growing contribution of digital technology and cross-border collaboration to realising health for all. The abiding dedication and enthusiasm witnessed during this year’s conference from speakers and delegates across the world has refreshed our sense of optimism for the future of global health and for the attainment of quality UHC, despite COVID-19.

“We don’t look back, but we learn from the lessons of the past. We look forward, at the opportunities before us. Of course there will be difficulties but we must ‘Keep right on to the end of the road’.” Professor Sir Eldryd Parry, THET’s Founder

[1] Of those who provided feedback through our conference survey.

The conference helped me to update and add new knowledge about global health challenges and solutions from experienced speakers. It boosted my passion for global health, helped me establish partnerships with others, and importantly it gave me direction to contribute my part towards achieving quality and equitable health for all.

- 2020 Conference Delegate

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