Ghana Women and Children
© Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Jiro Ose

Why Strong Primary Health Care Systems Matter

The last five decades have seen great improvements in the health of populations worldwide. Yet, too many children still suffer or die from largely preventable causes, too many women still die in childbirth, too many people die from treatable chronic conditions, and too many people lack access to quality and affordable health care.

Strengthening health systems – especially at the primary health care (PHC) level – is central to addressing these challenges, building on health gains, and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, especially the goal of quality universal health coverage.

Despite its importance, PHC is all too often the weakest link in the health system. The Ebola epidemic both exacerbated and was partially fueled by broken PHC systems. Even in the absence of emergencies, the need for stronger PHC is clear, as most child deaths under age 5 are preventable through effective PHC.

To improve PHC, adequate funding is critical. Yet, while many countries have identified PHC as an urgent priority, they don't have comprehensive data that will allow them to pinpoint specific weaknesses, understand their causes and strategically direct resources to the areas of greatest need. 

What is Strong Primary Health Care?

PHC forms the foundation of health systems, ensuring all people stay healthy and get care when they need it. When PHC works, people and families are connected with trusted health workers and supportive systems throughout their lives, and have access to comprehensive services ranging from family planning and routine immunizations to treatment of illness and management of chronic conditions.

Health systems built on strong PHC are more resilient, efficient and equitable. PHC meets the vast majority of communities’ diverse health needs, and ultimately, saves lives.

Strong PHC systems

When PHC systems are strong, the benefits extend far and wide -

  • Growing evidence shows that investing in PHC leads to high-quality and cost-effective care for people and communities.
  • Widespread access to PHC supports more equitable distribution of health.
  • The PHC system serves as an early warning mechanism to detect and stop disease outbreaks before they become epidemics.
  • Targeted investments in PHC amplify efforts to improve health across the course of life, from birth to old age.
  • Good PHC empowers individuals, families and communities to be active decision-makers about their health.

Download our PHC Factsheet or read our technical definition of PHC for more details.

Five Decades of Primary Health Care

The importance of strong PHC was first raised nearly 50 years ago. Key milestones for PHC since then include -

PHC Timeline