Access to medical oxygen: Why are we holding our breath?
Joint roundtable with Chatham House identifies key opportunities for expanding access to medical oxygen
The need for medical oxygen is urgent and chronic
Medical oxygen is crucial for the timely treatment of a whole host of conditions. It is vital for tackling respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, which currently claims the life of a child every 39 seconds. It is also essential in the provision of emergency and intensive care, such as treating complications during childbirth.
However, almost half of hospitals in low- and middle-income countries have an inconsistent supply of medical oxygen or lack it entirely. In most of Europe and North America, medical oxygen is delivered by tanker, stored in large vessels, and eventually piped directly to hospital bedsides. But many poorer countries lack this infrastructure, relying instead on costly oxygen cylinders. In this complex, fragmented supply chain, medical oxygen becomes unaffordable for those who need it most.
The COVID-19 pandemic laid this problem bare, as hospitals in low- and middle-income countries scrambled to keep the oxygen flowing for intubated patients. With future global pandemics an ever-increasing possibility, the need to close the gap in medical oxygen access is more urgent than ever.
The pandemic has exposed the urgent need to expand the Access the Medicine Foundation’s proven model of engaging pharmaceutical companies to the oxygen industry. The big oxygen companies all need robust, long-term access to oxygen strategies, with performance indicators that can highlight best practices and areas where more attention is needed. The Foundation can help oxygen companies increase their impact during the pandemic, and long after the pandemic is over, by strengthening health systems to do a better job of treating tens of millions of hypoxemic patients each year.
Improving access demands an integrated approach
The leading manufacturers of medical gases have a vital role to play in providing sustainable supplies of medical oxygen to health centres globally. The supply chain involves many distributors, but six manufacturers — including the three market leaders — dominate the market.
There are four key areas where medical gas companies can act to improve access to medical oxygen:
Give higher priority to ensuring access in low- and middle-income countries
Help develop sustainable approaches to access for diverse health systems
Improve delivery mechanisms and increase capacity in collaboration with local partners
Engage rapidly during emergencies and in future pandemics
For industrial gas producers, medical oxygen represents just a small proportion of their overall business. Nonetheless, investing in solving the oxygen crisis can yield significant returns for global health.
How we mobilise key players to close the gap
With the medical gas industry dominated by just six companies, fixing the problem requires leadership from the top. At the Access to Medicine Foundation, we are working for change with the medical gas industry, drawing on our experience stimulating pharmaceutical companies to take vital steps for global public health.
We work with stakeholders to explore concrete opportunities to increase access to medical oxygen in low- and middle-income countries. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we rallied governments and investors to support the ACT-A Oxygen Emergency Taskforce.
We bring key players to the table for discussions that move the issue forward. With the Every Breath Counts Coalition, we co-hosted a series of virtual roundtables in 2020 to explore opportunities to increase access to medical oxygen in low- and middle-income countries. In these meetings — the first of their kind — representatives from medical gas companies, corporate investors and global health agencies came together to share perspectives and build fruitful partnerships to drive change.
We engage the media to highlight the topic of medical oxygen to the wider world. The Access to Medicine Foundation’s work in this area has featured in a number of major international media outlets.
With a coordinated effort, we can address the acute need for medical oxygen and help to save millions of lives in the long term.
Explore our research sectors
R&D-based pharma companies
We influence and encourage them to make their products accessible for all.
Medical gas companies
We stimulate the industry to ensure availability for treatments and procedures.