In the Rearview Mirror: The HSR2016 at Vancouver, Canada


By Assoc Prof Freddie Ssengooba

It came and is now gone. Last week it happened on the west-most coast of Canada – eleven hours of time zone difference from my home in Uganda. The HRS2016 conference at Vancouver galvanized efforts of researchers and organizers across the world for the last two years. And indeed it lived up to the expectations. Over 3,000 delegates and over 200 sessions filled with ideas, scientific presentations and inspiring interactions about resilience and responsive health systems from all around the world. On reflection, many issues stand out for me from the perspective of a Ugandan member of Health Systems Global community.



The Vancouver Convention Centre at Canada Place, Vancouver, Canada

1. The Star at Vancouver: Uganda and Makerere University

One outstanding remark made by many delegates was “there are many Ugandans” and “Makerere University is everywhere”.  I was personally impressed by the numerous presentations by Makerere University staff, chairing and serving as panelists on high level sessions and even having a market place to show-case Makerere University work. Many persons would come to me after a session and asked where I come from.  By day three, every one I told that I was from Makerere University, would make a remark to the effect that Makerere is everywhere at the conference.

On this note, I wish to congratulate the University and all the delegates for the impact and visibility you made at Vancouver last week. Despite it being closed, the University was making a loud mark on the western pacific coasts of Canada for the world to see. Uganda delegation also included a good representation from the Ministry of Health, district health managers and some Civil Society Organizations that generate health systems research.  In all, over 50 delegates come from Uganda.  Add to this list the partners from other countries that have projects in Uganda and you see an explosion of Uganda-related research on the program. I counted about 22 events in the program book with Uganda or Makerere University. Many events were not in the program book as those that made it to the meeting were replacing people who missed due to visas etc.


2. Universal Health Coverage remain a challenge for all nations

Another observation to carry home is that UHC is a challenge for all nations. Despite its acclaimed universal health provision financed by public budget, Canada still has enormous challenges in reaching out to its minority populations. The opening session on Tuesday last week provided eye watering moments as the plenary speaker – a doctor with roots from indigenous communities of Canada narrated the story about how the modern health system has been designed beyond the reach of the indigenous people’s way of life, geography, value systems and social realities. The costs of access to the indigenous communities were too high to promote their access. The people working in the modern health system were too illiterate about the indigenous peoples’ way of life to provide appropriate care. The universal health coverage agenda will be empty if society ignores its vulnerables. Canada has lessons for us in Uganda to craft a path for universal health coverage that does not leave vulnerable groups behind.


3. Focus on Health Systems for Priority Interventions

The focus on newborn and maternal health was impressive for me. Our own Monica Okuga, Ayub Kakaire, Moses Tetui and Gertrude Namazzi had sessions to present from the Makerere University Center of Excellence for Maternal and Newborn Health. Many presentations from similar centers around the world indicated the role of community health workers and the education needed for communities to play their rightful roles to improve maternal and newborn health. The biggest promise was from the launch of the report commissioned by the United Nations Commission on “Working for Health” at the conference. I had the pleasure to represent academia on the launch panel. The good news is that 40 million new jobs are being proposed in low and middle-income countries to expand the workforce across the developing world. This is a major undertaking in support of universal health coverage. However, the session was full of “political economy” questions and discussions – How will the workers be produced, recruited and retained?  How are the interests of powerful actors going to be addressed? How will wages and migration be dealt with? These and more questions were prominent and the answers were hard to comprehend. Bottom-line – we need to watch this space.


4. The Intersection Between Evidence, Policy and Implementation

In my opinion, the most outstanding contribution of Makerere University School of Public Health at the Vancouver conference was in this thematic field. The work of KTNet, SPEED project and sister programs at the Collage of Health Sciences were remarkable. Five organized sessions with high-level policy makers, research funders, European Commission and Africa-wide researchers were not only well attended, they were full to capacity. The sessions did not disappoint either. Practitioners of knowledge translation inspired the audience with the breadth and innovation and shared passion to see research go the extra mile to change communities. Funders expressed their commitment and challenges in building research capacity in the south, building effective partnerships to finance research and balancing the needs of their governments and those of research communities. The Netherlands’ agency for research – WOTRO launched their report at one of these sessions.



Hard to Resist a Sense of “Humble Pride”

Pride is not my trait, but Vancouver made me feel a sense of pride and humility. Something right is taking place at Makerere University School of Public Health and at HPPM Department in particular. I am humbly proud to be associated with the good works the members are doing.  Congratulations to you all and to those that enable us to shine.


Prof Ssengooba- extreme left


Assoc Prof Freddie Ssengooba

Chair HPPM Department

Makerere University School of Public Health