STAT, June 5, 2017
Helen Branswell


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Once every two years, the World Health Organization releases a list of medications it thinks should be available, if needed, to all the people of the Earth. The latest iteration of the essential medicines list is slated to be released this week.

It’s a formulary, a compendium like the ones health insurers such as Kaiser Permanente or Harvard Pilgrim maintain to help them determine which medicines should be covered by their policies.

That may sound dull or at least rather wonky. But there are real-world implications when a drug makes — or is not approved for — this list.

The move to include HIV drugs in 2002 arguably helped to make lifesaving antiretrovirals available to AIDS patients in developing countries. More recently, the addition of game-changing hepatitis C drugs to the list appears to have put them on a similar trajectory.

The list is meant to help countries figure out how to prioritize spending on medications. It’s a model that many use to craft their own drug formularies — while individual countries may make tweaks here and there, they don’t each need to set about inventing this wheel.

While the process isn’t easy, the thinking behind it is.

“Some drugs are more important than others. … And this is independent of cost,” explained Nicola Magrini, a WHO scientist and secretary to the expert committee on the selection and use of essential medicines, which draws up the list.

Here are some facts about the essential medicines list — its history and some things to look for when the 2017 iteration is published. [...]

bioethics global health health care finance insurance international pharmaceuticals