This year’s HTAsiaLink annual conference 2019 was on the theme of “Priority Setting for Universal Health Coverage” in Seoul, South Korea which was preceded by a day of pre-conference sessions. I would like to thank the Health Intervention and Technology Assessment Program (HITAP), Thailand for giving me this wonderful opportunity to attend and participate in this conference which showcased the range of HTA research conducted in the Asian region and also linked researchers with global experts in the field.

One of the sessions that embodied the spirit of the conference was a pre-conference session titled “Solving the Unsolvable HTA Challenges through South-South Knowledge Exchange”. As a junior HTA researcher who wishes to contribute to the institutionalization of health technology assessment (HTA) in India, it was a great learning opportunity to listen to the practical experiences of senior policymakers from Thailand, Dr. Somsak Chunharas, former Deputy Minister of Public Health, who provided opening remarks and elaborated on the role of HTA as an integral part of health system development and on institutionalizing HTA with the example of Thailand; and Dr. Suwit Wibulpolprasert, former Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Public Health, Thailand, who provided the closing remarks to the session. These insights were accompanied by presentations from representatives from Bhutan, Kenya, and Zambia who highlighted the challenges faced by them in institutionalizing HTA, particularly during the phase of translating HTA findings for policy implementation. Following the presentations, participants had a chance to deliberate on three key challenges through the medium of a world café.

In almost all of the presentations, I noticed that these countries share a common need for evidence-based decision-making and using HTA as an important tool to achieve such goal. Examples on the use of HTA (or its potential use in the future) ranged from defining the benefits package for essential medicines and technologies, priority setting exercises, and price negotiation especially in the context of aspirations for achieving universal health coverage (UHC). A key challenge central to all discussions was the lack of trained capacity to undertake HTA in these countries. The speakers appreciated the role of HITAP in building capacity through training workshops in these countries. The post-presentation discussions further delved into possible ways to institutionalize HTA as well as into how to communicate findings of HTA to policymakers or its end users.

The speakers and other participants (e.g. HTA researchers, officials of Ministry of Public Health) also actively engaged in the “world café” which was a very thought-provoking and central component of this session. Participants were assigned to a table, each of which had a pre-designated theme centered on a specific HTA challenge, led by a moderator. The challenges were building technical capacity and training, financing for HTA, and linkage of HTA research to policy. The groups were rotated twice and participants engaged in enlightening discussions on each of the themes.

Reflections from this part of the session were very interesting as I could identify with some of the challenges in my country’s context which faces similar challenges as the other countries. It was noted that there is a strong need to do capacity building of researchers and health program managers involved in HTA along with sensitization of policymakers to HTA. Most of the country examples discussed during this session had decentralized health systems as in India. Some had separate HTA units, while others were on the way of establishing one. Another commonality was in terms of dual burden of disease – communicable and non-communicable – being the case for them and India. Resources allocated to health are also scarce, but there is a political commitment to achieve UHC in most of the countries. The role of HTA in this regard is paramount as it helps allocate resources wisely and offers to make the best choice in value for money. In essence, the linkage of HTA research to policy is crucial for promulgating evidence-informed decision-making. This further calls for trained capacity to undertake HTAs on prioritized topics, sensitization of stakeholders to HTA and effective communication of HTA findings to policymakers so that the HTA research channels into policy and practice. The annual HTAsiaLink Conference including the pre-conference SSKE session was very helpful in enhancing my understanding of HTA-related activities occurring across Asian countries.

During the conference, HTA-related work was showcased nicely in presentations by the fellow speakers and also by commentators, who shared valuable lessons and opinions on HTA.  On the whole, it was wonderful to be part of this HTAsiaLink and I hope to continue to participate in the future events. I look forward to using the key take-aways and experiences back in my home country to promote HTA-supported priority setting in health.

About the author

Dr. Gunjeet Kaur is a Ph. D Scholar in Community Medicine, School of Public Health, Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research, Chandigarh