The fourth, fifth and sixth Millennium Development Goals relate directly to improving global healthcare and health outcomes. The focus is to improve global health outcomes by reducing maternal and childhood mortality and the burden of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Specific targets and timeframes have been set for these diseases. There is, however, no specific mention of surgically treated diseases in these goals, reflecting a bias that is slowly changing with emerging consensus that surgical care is an integral part of primary healthcare systems in the developing world. The disparities between the developed and developing world in terms of wealth and social indicators are reflected in disparities in access to surgical care. Health administrators must develop plans and strategies to reduce these disparities. However, any strategic plan that addresses deficits in healthcare must have a system of metrics, which benchmark the current quality of care so that specific improvement targets may be set. This concept paper outlines the role of surgical services in a primary healthcare system, highlights the ongoing disparities in access to surgical care and outcomes of surgical care, discusses the importance of a systems-based approach to healthcare and quality improvement, and reviews the current state of surgical care at district hospitals in South Africa. Finally, it proposes that the results from a recently published study on acute appendicitis, as well as data from a number of other common surgical conditions, can provide measurable outcomes across a healthcare system and so act as an indicator for judging improvements in surgical care. This would provide a framework for the introduction of collection of these outcomes as a routine epidemiological health policy tool.
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