Kathleen Holloway and David Henry evaluate whether countries that report having implemented WHO essential medicines policies have higher quality use of medicines.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Suboptimal medicine use is a global public health problem. For 35 years the World Health Organization (WHO) has promoted essential medicines policies to improve quality use of medicines (QUM), but evidence of their effectiveness is lacking, and uptake by countries remains low. Our objective was to determine whether WHO essential medicines policies are associated with better QUM.
Methods and Findings
We compared results from independently conducted medicines use surveys in countries that did versus did not report implementation of WHO essential medicines policies. We extracted survey data on ten validated QUM indicators and 36 self-reported policy implementation variables from WHO databases for 2002–2008. We calculated the average difference (as percent) for the QUM indicators between countries reporting versus not reporting implementation of specific policies. Policies associated with positive effects were included in a regression of a composite QUM score on total numbers of implemented policies. Data were available for 56 countries. Twenty-seven policies were associated with better use of at least two percentage points. Eighteen policies were associated with significantly better use (unadjusted p<0.05), of which four were associated with positive differences of 10% or more: undergraduate training of doctors in standard treatment guidelines, undergraduate training of nurses in standard treatment guidelines, the ministry of health having a unit promoting rational use of medicines, and provision of essential medicines free at point of care to all patients. In regression analyses national wealth was positively associated with the composite QUM score and the number of policies reported as being implemented in that country. There was a positive correlation between the number of policies (out of the 27 policies with an effect size of 2% or more) that countries reported implementing and the composite QUM score (r = 0.39, 95% CI 0.14 to 0.59, p = 0.003). This correlation weakened but remained significant after inclusion of national wealth in multiple linear regression analyses. Multiple policies were more strongly associated with the QUM score in the 28 countries with gross national income per capita below the median value (US$2,333) (r = 0.43, 95% CI 0.06 to 0.69, p = 0.023) than in the 28 countries with values above the median (r = 0.22, 95% CI −0.15 to 0.56, p = 0.261). The main limitations of the study are the reliance on self-report of policy implementation and measures of medicine use from small surveys. While the data can be used to explore the association of essential medicines policies with medicine use, they cannot be used to compare or benchmark individual country performance.
WHO essential medicines policies are associated with improved QUM, particularly in low-income countries.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The widespread availability of effective medicines, particularly those used to treat infectious diseases, has been largely responsible for a doubling in the average global life expectancy over the past century. However, the suboptimal use (overuse and underuse) of medicines is an ongoing global public health problem. The unnecessary use of medicines (for example, the use of antibiotics for sore throats caused by viruses) needlessly consumes scarce resources and has undesirable effects such as encouraging the emergence of antibiotic resistance. Conversely, underuse deprives people of the undisputed benefits of many medicines. Since 1977, to help optimize medicine use, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advocated the concept of “essential medicines” and has developed policies to promote the quality use of medicines (QUM). Essential medicines are drugs that satisfy the priority needs of the human population and that should always be available to communities in adequate amounts of assured quality, in the appropriate dosage forms, and at an affordable price. Policies designed to promote QUM include recommendations that medicines should be free at the point of care and that all health care professionals should be educated about the WHO list of essential medicines (which is revised every two years) throughout their careers.
Why Was This Study Done?
Surveys of WHO member countries undertaken in 2003 and 2007 suggest that the implementation of WHO policies designed to promote QUM is patchy. Moreover, little is known about whether these policies are effective, particularly in middle- and low-income countries. For most of these countries, it is not known whether any of the policies affect validated QUM indicators such as the percentage of patients prescribed antibiotics (a lower percentage indicates better use of medicines) or the percentage of patients treated in compliance with national treatment guidelines (a higher percentage indicates better use of medicines). Here, the researchers analyze data from policy implementation questionnaires and medicine use surveys to determine whether implementation of WHO essential medicines policies is associated with improved QUM in low- and middle-income countries.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers extracted data on ten validated QUM indicators and on implementation of 36 policy variables from WHO databases for 2002–2008 and compared the average differences for the QUM indicators between low- and middle-income countries that did versus did not report implementation of specific WHO policies for QUM. Among 56 countries for which data were available, 27 policies were associated with improved QUM. Four policies were particularly effective, namely, doctors' undergraduate training in standard treatment guidelines, nurses' undergraduate training in standard treatment guidelines, the existence of a ministry of health department promoting the rational use of medicines, and the provision of essential medicines free to all patients at point of care. The researchers also analyzed correlations between how many of the 27 effective policies were implemented in a country and a composite QUM score. As national wealth increased, both the composite QUM score of a country and the reported number of policies implemented by the country increased. There was also a positive correlation between the numbers of policies that countries reported implementing and their composite QUM score. Finally, the implementation of multiple policies was more strongly associated with the composite QUM score in countries with a gross national income per capita below the average for the study countries than in countries with a gross national income above the average.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings show that between 2002 and 2008, the reported implementation of WHO essential medicines policies was associated with better QUM across low- and middle-income countries. These findings also reveal a positive correlation between the number of policies that countries report implementing and their QUM. Notably, this correlation was strongest in the countries with the lowest per capita national wealth levels, which underscores the importance of essential medicines policies in low-income countries. Because of the nature of the data available to the researchers, these findings do not show that the implementation of WHO policies actually causes improvements in QUM. Moreover, the age of the data, the reliance on self-report of policy implementation, and the small sample sizes of the medicine use surveys may all have introduced some inaccuracies into these findings. Nevertheless, overall, these findings suggest that WHO should continue to develop its medicine policies and to collect data on medicine use as part of its core functions.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001724.
The World Health Organization provides information about essential medicines; its latest lists of essential medicines are available on the Internet; information about WHO policies to improve the quality use of medicines is also available (in several languages)
The International Network for the Rational Use of Drugs designs, tests, and disseminates effective strategies to improve the way drugs are prescribed, dispensed, and used, particularly in resource-poor countries
The essentialdrugs.org website helps health care professionals, researchers, and policy makers obtain and discuss current information on essential drugs, policy, program activities, education, and training (available in several languages); the website is run by Satellife, which aims to use technology to connect health workers in resource-limited countries to each other and to up-to-date clinical and public health content