Civil society participation in the health system: the case of Brazil’s Health Councils

Globalization and Health
[Accessed 29 October 2016]

Civil society participation in the health system: the case of Brazil’s Health Councils
Martha Gabriela Martinez and Jillian Clare Kohler
Globalization and Health 2016 12:64
Published on: 26 October 2016
Brazil created Health Councils to bring together civil society groups, heath professionals, and government officials in the discussion of health policies and health system resource allocation. However, several studies have concluded that Health Councils are not very influential on healthcare policy. This study probes this issue further by providing a descriptive account of some of the challenges civil society face within Brazil’s Health Councils.
Forty semi-structured interviews with Health Council Members at the municipal, state and national levels were conducted in June and July of 2013 and May of 2014. The geographical location of the interviewees covered all five regions of Brazil (North, Northeast, Midwest, Southeast, South) for a total of 5 different municipal Health Councils, 8 different state Health Councils, and the national Health Council in Brasilia. Interview data was analyzed using a thematic approach.
Health Councils are limited by a lack of legal authority, which limits their ability to hold the government accountable for its health service performance, and thus hinders their ability to fulfill their mandate. Equally important, their membership guidelines create a limited level of inclusivity that seems to benefit only well-organized civil society groups. There is a reported lack of support and recognition from the relevant government that negatively affects the degree to which Health Council deliberations are implemented. Other deficiencies include an insufficient amount of resources for Health Council operations, and a lack of training for Health Council members. Lastly, strong individual interests among Health Council members tend to influence how members participate in Health Council discussions.
Brazil’s Health Councils fall short in providing an effective forum through which civil society can actively participate in health policy and resource allocation decision-making processes. Restrictive membership guidelines, a lack of autonomy from the government, vulnerability to government manipulation, a lack of support and recognition from the government and insufficient training and operational budgets have made Health Council largely a forum for consultation. Our conclusions highlight, that among other issues, Health Councils need to have the legal authority to act independently to promote government accountability, membership guidelines need to be revised in order include members of marginalized groups, and better training of civil society representatives is required to help them make more informed decisions.