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Jan 20, 2017

Why Brazil should not take a U-turn on its health system

Pallavi Gupta

Brazil has been the envy of the world in terms of its successes in reducing health inequality. Yet recent developments threaten its health achievements. This blog looks at the potential impact of recently announced policies on the public health system in Brazil by exploring how similar policies have played out in the Indian health system.

Brazil: success and threats

In response to its commitment to the 1978 Alma-Ata declaration of “health for all”, the constitution of Brazil enshrined health as a right of all citizens in 1988, thereby mandating the state to provide universal and equal access to health services to its population [1]. A long political struggle and the Brazilian Health Reform Movement led to the establishment of the Unified Health System (SUS) [2]. The SUS decentralised and universalised access to healthcare, with municipalities providing comprehensive and free health care, financed by the states and federal government [1]. Primary health care (PHC) has been key to Brazil’s health reform strategy. PHC integrates medical care with health promotion and public health actions. Family healthcare teams, comprising one doctor, one nurse, one auxiliary nurse, and four to six community health workers are assigned per 600–1000 families [2]. Despite opposition from the private health sector as well as underfunding, the SUS has managed to vastly improve access to primary and emergency care, reach universal coverage of vaccination and prenatal care, and invest in the expansion of human resources and technology, including the production of essential medicines [2]. Since 2000, the government has been investing 3 to 4 % of GDP in health [3]. Consequently, fertility rates in Brazil decreased from 5·8 per woman in 1970 to 1·9 in 2008, and infant mortality reduced from 114 per 1000 live births in 1970 to 19·3 per 1000 live births in 2007 [2].

Furthermore, in response to protests by Brazilians demanding better access to physicians, Brazil sourced doctors from the country and from Cuba as part of its “More Physicians” (Mais Médicos) programme introduced in 2013 by Dilma Rousseff’s government. This additional workforce benefited 63 million Brazilians living in remote and vulnerable areas, which previously had shortages of health professionals [4]. Today, 70 to 80% of the country’s more than 190 million people rely on SUS for their healthcare needs [2, [4].

However, the austerity measures proposed by the new government after the impeachment on August 31st 2016 and approved by the senate in December 2016 include the control of public spending for 20 years, which will have an impact on public education and public health services. Another measure that has been controversial since the interim government (from May to August 2016) is the creation of a plan to encourage people to seek healthcare from private providers instead of the country’s public health system, while the government is ending the monitoring of the private health-care sector. There are also attempts to diminish the role of public health care as evident by the staff cuts in the National Unified Health System. There is also a possibility of reduction in the number of foreign professionals in the country’s “More Physicians” programme [4].

Learning from India

Will looking at the fate of people in India make the new President and Minister of Health of Brazil think again about their plan? What the Brazilian government is planning to dismantle is exactly what civil society organisations and health rights groups have been calling to be established in India for decades. 70% of the out-patient care in India is sought from the private sector and nearly 60% of healthcare expenditure in the country is paid out-of-pocket by people at time of use [5]. One of the reasons for this is the abysmal state of the public health system in the country which has forever been underfunded, at a meagre 1.28% of GDP5. Shortages of health staff is a huge challenge that India faces, especially in the rural and tribal areas. The private healthcare industry, that has been growing by leaps and bounds, is largely unregulated and enjoys tax sops in more ways than one [5]. The central government passed the Clinical Establishment (Registration and Regulation) Act 2010 to regulate private medical services across the country, so that the patients can get good quality services with some control over their cost [6]. However, the whole private health care industry, including the Indian Medical Association (a private voluntary association of doctors) has been protesting the implementation of the Act and the sector continues to operate more or less on its own terms, leaving patients at their mercy.

Oxfam India supported the collection of testimonies of 78 rationally practicing doctors who shared the inside stories of how private healthcare operates in an “industry mode” and how patients are frequently fleeced of their money and right to care [7]. For example, a pathologist in a leading Indian city hospital gave a fake report declaring a patient diabetic (when his blood sugar was normal) on the suggestion of the doctor who had referred the patient. By doing so, the doctor ensured having a long term patient under his care who would be a continuous source of income. And this is not a one-off case.

The results of the proposed measures in the Brazilian public health system can be seen in Indian healthcare.

As the saying goes, “to make, it takes one lifetime, and to break, it takes one day”. India’s one lifetime for progressive changes is still to come but Brazil’s “one day to break” is right here. Given the impact that we witness everyday of a weak health system on people, we can only hope that the Brazilian public health system does not take a U-turn and tread the India Path.

Written by Pallavi Gupta, Programme Coordinator, Essential Services (Health)

This article first appeared in Global Health Check 

Photo courtesy Oxfam International 



1 Flawed but fair: Brazil’s health system reaches out to the poor, Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Volume 86, Number 4, April 2008, 241-320. (accessed 7 December 2016)

2 Jairnilson Paim, Claudia Travassos, Celia Almeida, Ligia Bahia, James Macinko. The Brazilian health system: history, advances, and challenges. Lancet 2011; 377: 1778–97

3 (accessed 30 November 2016)

4 Katarzyna Doniec, Rafael Dall’Alba, Lawrence King. Austerity threatens universal health coverage in Brazil. Lancet 2016; 388:687

5 Vikram Patel, Rachana Parikh, Sunil Nandraj, et al. Assuring health coverage for all in India. Lancet 2015; 386: 2422–35. (accessed 30 November 2016

6 The Clinical Establishments (Registration and Regulation) Act, 2010, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. (accessed 30 November 2016)

7 Voices of Conscience from the Medical Profession. Support for Advocacy and Training to Health Initiatives, Oxfam India 2015.

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