Self-care is the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health worker.
Currently 3.6 billion people – half of the world – lack access to essential health services. WHO recommends self-care interventions for every country and economic setting, as a critical path to reach universal health coverage, promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable.
Self-care recognises individuals as active agents in managing their own health care, in areas including health promotion; disease prevention and control; self-medication; providing care to dependent persons, and rehabilitation, including palliative care.
Self-care interventions are evidence-based, quality tools that support self-care. They include medicines, counselling, diagnostics and/or digital technologies which can be accessed fully or partially outside of formal health services. Depending on the intervention, they can be used with or without the direct supervision of health workers.
- empower individuals and communities to manage their health and well-being
- strengthen national institutions with efficient use of domestic resources for health
- improve primary healthcare (PHC) and contribute to achieving UHC
A people-centred approach
Self-care interventions support the needs and rights of individuals through a people-centred approach that is grounded in human rights and gender equality.
This is a holistic approach to the health and well-being of each person, taking account of their circumstances, needs and desires across a lifetime, as well as the environment in which they live.
Self-care is the power of individuals to prevent and treat diseases themselves, in the context of a safe and supportive enabling environment. It does not replace the health care system, but instead provides additional choices and options for health care.
Available, accessible, affordable, acceptable and good quality self-care interventions are core components of promoting and protecting people’s right to health. Self-care interventions can improve the efficiency of health service delivery, access and coverage.
This requires supportive laws and policies, health financing, regulated quality products and interventions, and education which promotes the participation of individuals, as well as privacy and confidentiality.
Human rights considerations help to reduce violence, coercion, stigma and discrimination by improving each person’s exercise of their right to health, information, and independent decision-making.
Pandemics and humanitarian crises
In situations where existing health systems are stretched, there is often an unprecedented demand on individuals and communities to manage their health.
Innovative strategies that go beyond the conventional health sector response is urgently needed given that:
- a record 274 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance and protection and disease outbreaks are a constant global threat
- at least 400 million people worldwide lack access to the most essential health services.
- 1 in 5 of the world’s population are now living in humanitarian crises, in which health systems are challenged to deliver essential services.
Self-care interventions can provide valuable, additional options to the usual health facility- or health worker-based services, as part of a supportive health system.
This is particularly relevant during a pandemic like COVID-19, when self-isolation and physical distancing measures make it more difficult for people to access their normal health care services and medications and national health systems can be disrupted.
WHO includes self-care interventions as priority actions in operational guidance on maintaining essential health services for the COVID-19 context.