Ageing populations, the rise of non-communicable diseases, and conflict-induced injuries continue to increase the global unmet need for affordable rehabilitation services. Yet rehabilitation is often under-prioritized in countries’ health systems and Universal Health Coverage (UHC) strategies, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

With support from the Inclusive Development Hub of USAID’s Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation (DDI) and funding from the Leahy War Victim’s Fund, the Health Systems Strengthening Accelerator and the Joint Learning Network for Universal Health Coverage (JLN) co-hosted a webinar on February 2nd that convened over 150 UHC and rehabilitation leaders from 30 countries to exchange country experiences with rehabilitation, including how (or whether) it is integrated within health systems and UHC strategies, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After opening remarks from USAID and JLN representatives, Dr. Alarcos Cieza from the World Health Organization (WHO) presented on how the increasing global need for rehabilitation remains unmet despite it being one of the five essential services to be provided to achieve UHC. Integrating rehabilitation into all levels of care is key and requires a health systems strengthening approach, for which the WHO has developed a number of tools including the Rehabilitation in Health Systems: Guide for Action.

The webinar’s main session was a moderated panel that included the following rehabilitation and UHC experts:

  • Maryke Bezuidenhout, Rural Physiotherapist, South Africa
  • Dr. Akanle Olufunke, Registrar/CEO at the Medical Rehabilitation Therapists Regional Board of Nigeria (MRTB)
  • Dr. Adolfo Martinez Valle, Steering Group Convener, Joint Learning Network & Researcher of Policy, Population, and Health at National Autonomous University of Mexico

The panelists shared their countries’ experiences with integrating rehabilitation into the overall health system—particularly primary health care—and the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on rehabilitation service coverage. Maryke Bezuidenhout explained common barriers for South African patients in receiving care, such as outsized financial burdens, inflexible rehabilitation services, and inadequate investment in rehabilitation resulting in poor service availability. Dr. Akanle Olufunke spoke to the many challenges to ensuring rehabilitation coverage in Nigeria, including a lack of investment in the rehabilitation workforce, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of awareness from policymakers. From his extensive policymaking experience in Mexico, Dr. Adolfo Martinez Valle spoke to the under-prioritization of rehabilitation by decision-makers, and how this challenge can be overcome through a coordinated multi-sectoral approach and investment in the rehabilitation workforce and data collection. Overall, under-prioritization of rehabilitation was a theme across all countries represented on the panel, as was the need to integrate rehabilitation into primary health care systems and collect more rehabilitation data to better monitor and improve outcomes.

The webinar concluded with participants sharing topics of interest for future learning exchanges on rehabilitation and UHC. The Accelerator will continue to assess demand from countries for additional learning on health systems strengthening for rehabilitation to shape a learning agenda for a potential rehabilitation-focused learning collaborative. Click here to view the webinar.