Self-Care: A Foundational Component of Health System Sustainability

This piece was originally posted on the SCTG blog.

By Judy Stenmark, Director General, Global Self-Care Federation

Embedding self-care practices into the healthcare continuum has the potential to improve health and quality of life while supporting sustainable health systems.

Self-care has existed for ages and is as important now as it has ever been. Healthcare systems are overstretched and need to make a shift. They have been impacted by the rise of chronic conditions, aging populations, and the recent pandemic. The sharp focus of the global policy community on Universal Health Coverage (UHC) offers an opportunity to showcase the value of self-care as a legitimate tool to strengthen health systems overall.

Today, we understand individual behavior plays a central role in determining successful disease prevention and management. The Political Declaration of the High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) identifies both healthy behaviors and a person’s ability to play an active role in their health as critical to managing NCDs. The adequate incorporation of self-care into the healthcare continuum has the potential to mitigate the impact of the growing burden of NCDs by: 1) improving disease prevention efforts; 2) equipping individuals to monitor and manage their conditions at home; 3) ultimately, averting unnecessary health facility visits.

The link between successful NCD management and self-care is clear. Many diseases are preventable through healthy lifestyle choices and self-care practices. Individuals can significantly reduce their risk of developing NCDs with healthy habits, such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and stress management. Disease prevention is not the only important piece of the puzzle. Self-care is also essential for those already diagnosed. For example, individuals with diabetes can manage their condition by monitoring their blood sugar levels, taking medication as prescribed, and making healthy lifestyle choices. Similarly, individuals with heart disease can manage their condition by reducing their salt intake, quitting smoking, and exercising regularly. 

Effective self-care practices directly support the implementation of UHC. Individuals taking responsibility for their own health and well-being through healthy lifestyle choices, preventive measures, and early intervention means that resources can be used more efficiently and effectively. This approach can reduce the burden on healthcare workers and government budgets, ensuring that time and materials are available to manage conditions that require  provider intervention. By supporting individuals to care for their own health, UHC can be implemented more successfully, leading to better health outcomes and improved quality of life for all.

Lack of awareness, supportive laws, policies, regulations, and financing continue to limit access to self-care products and services. Tackling NCDs requires a multidisciplinary and multisectoral approach to address the complex interaction between individuals, communities, populations, and their environment.

Defining Self-Care

World Health Organization Definition: The ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider.

Self-care refers to the holistic activities, practices, and products — medicinal, devices, and nutritive — that people can adopt to improve their health and well-being. In particular, self-care involves:

  • Making healthy lifestyle choices
  • Avoiding unhealthy lifestyle habits
  • Making responsible use of prescription and non-prescription medicines
  • Self-recognition of symptoms
  • Self-monitoring
  • Self-management

Therefore, codification of self-care as a critical component of the healthcare continuum, particularly in the context of managing the burden of NCDs and advancing UHC is needed and requires:

  • recognition of the value of self-care within the World Health Organization (WHO) system; 
  • encouraging a WHO resolution and/or inclusion of self-care as a significant component of progress within resolution documents on related topics (e.g., NCDs, UHC, etc.).

If you plan on attending the 76th World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerlandbe sure to join the Global Self-Care Federation (GSCF) and our United for a Self-Care Resolution partners for a special side event Self-Care: A Foundational Component of Health System Sustainability on 24 May 2023 at 12-2 pm CAT at the Geneva Press Club. This session will bring together diverse stakeholders to discuss our most significant challenges to sustainable health systems and ways to advance progress towards UHC for all – with the successful integration of self-care approaches. 

Register here to join in-person or watch the event live.


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