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.
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.
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