What is the World Health Assembly and why is it important?

The World Health Assembly takes place annually to discuss the policy and strategy for tackling key global healthcare challenges, and how to resolve them. 

Opening Plenary of World Health Assebly. Credit: United States Mission Geneva, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Opening Plenary of World Health Assebly. Credit: United States Mission Geneva, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons


How's your health?

It's a common enough question but one that gets more complicated when applied to the world as a whole.

Over the past few years, society has experienced a wave of adverse events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, geopolitical conflicts and the impacts of the climate and energy crises, which have engulfed global health and healthcare. Every year, the World Health Assembly is tasked with tackling global healthcare challenges like these and deciding how best to overcome them. But what is the Assembly, and why is it important?

What is the Assembly?

The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations (UN) agency dedicated to promoting the global population's health and access to the highest levels of healthcare provision.

Delegates from WHO member states come together at an annual assembly held at the UN headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to focus on a specific healthcare agenda created by the organization's Executive Board.

The Executive Board comprises 34 technically qualified members, each elected for a three-year term. They meet every year in January to agree on the agenda and any resolutions that will be put before the World Health Assembly for consideration.

The World Health Assembly takes place annually in Geneva, Switzerland. Image: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

What does the Assembly do?

Delegates at the annual World Health Assembly discuss the Executive Board's policy agenda for the coming year and decide which health goals and strategies will guide the WHO's public health work.

Other functions include voting to appoint the organization's Director-General to serve a five-year term. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus holds the post currently, having been re-elected in 2022 to serve a second term as head of the world's leading public health agency.

The Assembly also oversees financial policies, approves the proposed budget programme to fund future WHO operations, monitors progress in implementing work programmes, and devises strategies to address gaps.

Why is it important?

Now in its 76th session, this year's event takes place between 21-30 May 2023 under the theme "Health For All: 75 years of improving public health".

Since its inauguration, the Assembly has presided over WHO policies that have helped eradicate deadly diseases like smallpox and the poliovirus, and helped foster international collaborations to develop and distribute vaccines for diseases like malaria and COVID-19.

Shaping the future of global health and healthcare

To better understand global healthcare threats and impacts, the World Economic Forum's Global Health and Healthcare Strategic Outlook: Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare report identifies key risks to global health and potential ways to resolve them.

The pandemic brought a surge in healthcare spending, rapid development of vaccines and other scientific advances, alternative care models and increased reliance on digitalization and smart connectivity. However, it also created disparities in access to healthcare provision, health-sector worker shortages, a growing mental health and well-being burden, and economic challenges. The World Health Assembly provides a platform for health experts to debate and develop global policy around these and other pressing healthcare issues.

"Every year at the World Health Assembly, healthcare leaders from around the globe come together to discuss global health challenges and agree on how best to overcome them to ensure everyone, everywhere, can attain the highest level of health, said Dr Shyam Bishen, Head, Centre for Health & Healthcare at the World Economic Forum.

"To this end, the Centre is looking forward to participating in key World Health Assembly meetings and hosting events on pandemic preparedness and health system transformation," he added.

"We are working with WHO and other key stakeholders to ensure health systems around the world are better prepared to respond to future crises."

Written by

Johnny Wood, Writer, Forum Agenda


This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum on 15 May 2023.