3 ways the public sector can work with business to fight chronic diseases

A hygiene company supports the care of children under the The National Autism Society of Malaysia. Photo by: Genevieve Lim / SCA / CC BY 

More than three out of every five people who die today will do so because of a chronic, non-communicable disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer or lung disease.  

Now, consider that NCDs — which also can include trauma, stroke and mental illnesses — account for more than 75 percent of global health care spending and cause hundreds of billions of dollars in productivity losses. The human and economic costs are staggering. Very clearly, NCDs are a global challenge to health, but are also an impediment to sustainable human development and security overall.

The good news is that over the past five years, the world is taking action as NCDs, slowly but surely, move to the top of global health and development agendas. However, the not-so-good news is that preventing the explosion of NCDs will be no easy undertaking. The scope of this global health challenge calls for solutions far beyond the ability of any single institution to implement them. And positive outcomes are unlikely to be achieved without constructive engagement through a “whole-of-society” approach — including the private sector.

For its part, the private sector must make good on its social contract to help. When I joined Medtronic after 30 years serving in public sector and philanthropic capacities focused on global health and sustainable development, the company had just committed to being a leading  thought and funding partner in advance of the 2011 U.N. General Assembly Special Session on NCDs. It did so from its heart, but with a very mindful approach.

Medtronic, the world’s largest medical technology company, manufactures medical devices and therapies that address degenerative and chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, neurological and spine conditions, and chronic pain.

It’s no surprise that a Fortune 500 company would care about NCDs. But not just because they represents a business opportunity for Medtronic. We, too, represent the global community of those who, themselves, live with NCDs. And so do our colleagues, neighbors and loved ones. We believe that the success of our global commitment against NCDs demands a multi-sectoral, whole-of-society approach that includes people living with NCDs, governments, civil society, NGOs and the private sector.

Drawing from my years working in all of these sectors, I would like to recommend three ways for the global health and human development communities to consider engaging the private sector in addressing NCDs.

1. Establish mechanisms at the national level to facilitate and coordinate multi-sectoral, ‘whole-of-society’ solutions.

The underserved often face complete failures of fragile health systems, resulting in vulnerability to health threats that are usually non-existent or insignificant in the presence of a functioning disease surveillance and health service delivery infrastructure. Strong health systems are crucial now more than ever before, to thwart the impacts of emerging global health threats. Furthermore, advancements made in key global health areas such as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and reproductive health may be reversed if a full system of care approach is not identified.

We stand in line of historic public-private-civil society health efforts, whether the Mectizan partnership against onchocerciasis (river blindness); the multisectoral advances that have made antiretroviral treatment for HIV affordable in most communities worldwide; and a host of other examples across global health, education reform and social change. These could only be successful by having all actors on the same stage.

Yet these inclusive, participatory models are still evolving for NCDs. It’s time for recognizing our lessons learned, rather than starting this debate again from inception.

2. Support local ownership of responsibility by engaging in global solidarity.

The challenges the global community is confronting with Ebola are a good example of how local ownership and leadership, bolstered by global solidarity and resource delivery, can produce results.

Earlier this year, we announced HealthRise, a five-year, $17-million health care access program with demonstration projects in Brazil, India, South Africa and the United States. The goal is to improve the health of all people living with cardiovascular disease and diabetes through a comprehensive understanding of each community’s unique health system and a commitment to strengthen that system across the continuum of care.  

For us, “success” in confronting NCDs worldwide will be the ability to prevent or manage chronic conditions within one’s own community and, as a result, live a productive, fulfilling life with minor encumbrance. That’s why each of our Medtronic Philanthropy community health efforts begins on the ground, with people at the frontlines of need and health services delivery, and are carefully designed through local assessments of circumstance and capacity, predicated upon government commitment to incorporate successful practices within its full-scale national NCD plan and operations.

We have learned that this is a dynamic compact, needing on-going re-validation and periodic reconfirmation, to make sure we remain relevant and productive. Partners will appropriately enter and exit this partnership throughout its life course, as some have strengths in creating a vision, others in innovating service delivery, and yet others who are best at maintaining operations over the long haul.

Private sectors players are well-suited to contribute their proven knowledge and capacities in support of health and development goals, thereby providing platforms for self-sustainability.

3. Create opportunities to foster private sector participation and engagement — beyond funding.

Money, as no surprise, continues to be a limiting resource when it comes to human development and health reform. And with the reduction of  official development assistance resources from bilateral and multilateral partners, it seems intuitive to some to approach business and private sector through a lens of social responsibility and moral obligation to pick up the economic slack.  

However, as an engaged partner in this global health problem, private sector brings so much  more than money to the table. Our experience and expertise are often worth more than cash contributions alone, and provide the world with new ways of addressing lingering issues.

For instance, the private sector is based upon proven business models of “disruptive innovation,” “frugal innovation” and market-based solutions to meet the needs of a population, supported by self-generating operating models that make success scalable, replicable and sustainable. This approach, in and of itself, provides a key mechanism for health improvement and social change.

Global health threats remind us that the concepts of “neighbor” and “community” are fluid and relative. Now more than ever, a local health challenge has global implications. Human need in any community begs for global compassion and commitment. After all, at the end of the day, we all return to our shared communities, confront our common challenges and dream of the same aspirations: for ourselves, our loved ones and our planet.  

Having this “whole-of-society” approach enables us all to bring our diverse talents, resources and motivations together, toward a common thread to our health and security.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jacob Gayle

    Jacob Gayle is the vice president of Medtronic Philanthropy, leading the philanthropic and community affairs programs of Medtronic, Inc. since he joined the company in August 2011. Gayle has a distinguished career in international public health and diplomacy that has spanned three decades and several of the world’s leading health, development and philanthropic institutions.