Davos Notebook

Tackling healthcare for the very poor

This year in Davos, there is a lot of talk about transformations and new business models that will be important in our global economic recovery. In healthcare, new models will be a significant part of expanding access to patients in need. While it is clear there is lots of growth potential in emerging markets, it’s also important to address the larger societal challenges associated with this growth. This is especially true in the developing world where access and affordability are major issues.

Nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $2 per day. I was recently in India, where I got to see firsthand what this means. According to the latest estimate from the World Health Organization, there are more than 835 million people across rural India — more than twice the entire population of the United States. Only 35 percent of these people have access to essential medicines. For those of us in the developed world, this is a seemingly unimaginable gap.

As CEO of a global healthcare company, I believe it is critically important to help improve the health of people everywhere by expanding access to medicines in a sustainable way. However, there are many obstacles to delivering care in developing countries, and overcoming them requires adapting to local needs. Poor infrastructure, poverty, inadequate sanitation systems, unclean drinking water and a lack of trained health workers all compound the problem. The question is: With problems so large, how can we be part of the solution?

At Novartis, we realized it was important to take a step back and consider not just how we can enter a market but also how we can adapt to better consider local conditions. We saw that there was a need for a new model in emerging markets like India. That is why we developed Arogya Parivar, meaning “healthy family” in Hindi. This is what we call a “social business” model, meaning it blends corporate citizenship with entrepreneurship.

While many have highlighted the cost of medicine, there is not enough emphasis on solving the associated distribution and social challenges. Arogya Parivar addresses what I believe are the two most important issues in developing countries: healthcare education and infrastructure. The program works by recruiting and training locals to become health educators and tour villages, schools, and health centers. They conduct community health meetings and talk directly to patients about disease prevention and encourage them to seek timely treatments. Also, the local teams address the infrastructure issue by organizing health camps — mobile clinics that provide access to screening, diagnosis and therapies to patients in remote villages who don’t have regular access to healthcare. In 2010, we hosted more than 3,000 health camps, reaching an estimated 140,000 people.

Making the business case for a healthy workforce

The role that today’s workplace plays in health and well-being is often debated. People spend much of their time at work, and wellness at work matters. Employers generally find that healthy employees contribute to business success, but the exact quantitative relationship between improvements in employee health and corresponding improvements in employee productivity and engagement remains elusive.

At the same time, employees around the globe are increasingly subject to non-communicable diseases – primarily cancer, heart and chronic pulmonary diseases, and diabetes. Many such diseases have their root in obesity or tobacco use, and thus to a large extent are preventable. Worldwide, non-communicable diseases cause an estimated $2 trillion in losses each year in economic activity, as well as the premature deaths annually of 18 million people still in their productive years. That’s why the World Health Organizations tags such non-communicable diseases as “the world’s biggest killer.”

For the past two years, the Workplace Wellness Alliance has been tackling the problem. Triggered by a call to action during the 2010 World Economic Forum, this consortium began with 13 companies and now has more than 100 major global employers representing 4.5 million employees worldwide, all dedicated to ensuring that – regardless of country or industry – optimum employee wellness is a priority in the workplace.