Expert insight

Five Questions to …. Judy Stenmark

19 February 2020
  • Judy Stenmark

At WHO’s February Executive Board, The Global Self-Care Federation was among the UHC2030 Private Sector players to submit a statement. The statement calls for governments and other stakeholders to create an enabling environment for effective and structured private sector engagement, to accelerate progress on universal health coverage (UHC).

Judy Stenmark, Director General of The Global Self-Care Federation, explains how the importance and effectiveness of self-care interventions in combination with formal approaches to healthcare are often neglected in health policies. But things are about to change, as the Federation embarks on a three-year collaboration with WHO to establish self-care as a global health priority and a complementary approach to ensuring healthy lives for all.

What exactly is ‘self-care’ and how can it improve health outcomes?

WHO’s working definition of self-care is: “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 health-care provider”. Why you might ask, is this important? Well, WHO estimates that over half of the world’s population is unable to access the health services they need and that there will be a  shortage of around 18 million health workers by 2030.

We fundamentally need innovative strategies that go beyond a traditional approach to healthcare, to meet this growing demand for health services. Preventing illness by taking measures such as eating healthily, being physically active and self-addressing symptoms can all empower and equip you to look after your own health in a more efficient and convenient way.

This is especially relevant in light of the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) globally. Self-care interventions can significantly reduce the risk of developing cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and the like.

How well-known is the importance of self-care among the public and what does The Global Self-Care Federation do to raise awareness?

Generally, I think people are becoming more aware of the importance of self-care for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and are actively seeking reliable information. We see similar trends in personal healthcare aspirations across high- and low-income countries.

One of the Federation’s key objectives is to ensure the value of responsible self-care is understood. We work closely with our 36 members who represent national associations and consumer healthcare manufacturers across five continents, together with WHO, to advance universal health coverage and ensure healthy lives and well-being for all. To this end, we have developed three strategic pillars focusing on building trust in self-care, ensuring the sustainability of healthcare systems, and engaging in the debate around health data.

How can governments integrate the concept of self-care into their healthcare systems and policies?

Self-care is not a new phenomenon. People have been self-educating, self-diagnosing and self-treating for decades. Yet, the importance and effectiveness of self-care interventions in combination with formal approaches to healthcare are often neglected in health policies.

Something that countries can do is actively promote self-care interventions by providing inclusive, sustainable and affordable primary healthcare services, easy access to healthcare information and preventative care services.

It will be crucial to use self-care to ease the burden on over-stretched health systems. But this will mean empowering people to make conscious decisions about their own health. In the United States, for example primary care physicians estimate that up to 10% of patient visits to local doctors could be avoided with over-the-counter medication.

I strongly believe that digital technologies offer great potential for self-care interventions, but without guidance and reliable information from government and healthcare professionals, they might do more harm than good. Further, it is crucial that individuals are equipped and educated to self-manage common ailments, to make appropriate choices aided by digital technologies in consultation with healthcare professionals as needed.

How can self-care interventions contribute to the Global Goal of achieving universal health coverage by 2030?

Self-care is essential for well-being at every stage in life. We are well aware that self-care interventions are an empowering tool, particularly amongst vulnerable and marginalized populations, who are able to benefit from increased autonomy, decision-making power and overall well-being.

Integrating self-care into universal health coverage results in positive outcomes not just for patients themselves, but for health care systems and countries as a whole. For example, if countries across Europe were to change 5% of prescription medications to non-prescription status, this would result in annual savings of more than 16 billion euros.

We’re delighted to have recently signed a three-year collaboration with WHO to establish self-care as a global health priority and a core complementary approach to ensure healthy lives for all. This year, WHO published its first guidelines on self-care interventions for health with a particular focus on sexual and reproductive health and rights. These recognize the value of self-care for increased access to health services.

In your opinion, how should the private sector contribute towards universal health coverage?

Companies can play a key role in achieving universal health coverage. The private sector’s capacity for innovation comes to mind first. I see companies of all sizes finding unique solutions to address pressing global health challenges, including the rising disease burden, a lack of funding, ageing population and last but not least, inequality.

The Federation itself forms a part of the UHC2030 Private Sector Constituency, launched in 2018 and hosted by the World Economic Forum. The Constituency acts as a convening platform for private sector entities wishing to exchange and collaborate on universal health coverage (UHC).

But the private sector is only a part of the solution. UHC should be people-centered, with patients remaining at the heart of UHC efforts and playing an active role in their own healthcare, rather than being passive recipients of services.


  • Judy Stenmark