Understanding the Role and Use of Essential Medicines Lists
(2015; 50 pages)


Since the establishment of the concept of “essential medicines” by the World Health Organization (WHO), it has evolved and matured into a critically important element of national health system policies and practices. As the movement toward universal health coverage strengthens, so does the role of essential medicines as a key part of bringing to all people the health services they need without suffering financial hardship when paying for them.

As the WHO moves toward a revision of the model Essential Medicines List, it is timely to revisit the evolution of the list since 1977 and its use across a range of countries.

The purpose of this report is to:

  • Summarize how the Essential Medicines List has changed between 1977 and 2013 and the process by which the model list is revised
  • Describe the ways in which the WHO’s list is used by national health systems in developing their own lists of essential medicines
  • Review and compare the national lists for a range of countries and factors affecting local implementation
  • Provide considerations for future revisions of the WHO model list.

In reviewing national systems, a selection of middle- and low-income countries were selected from Asia, Africa and Latin America, including Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Malawi, the Philippines, South Africa, and Tanzania.

The WHO Essential Medicines and Health Products Information Portal was designed and is maintained by Human Info NGO. Last updated: December 1, 2019