5 smart ways for the private sector and NGOs to tackle chronic diseases together

A no-smoking sign. Making workplaces smoke-free is just one of the ways the private sector can reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases. Photo by: Chelsea Marie Hicks / CC BY

It’s no secret that noncommunicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and asthma cause an increasing burden of death and disability in rich and poor countries alike. But few people are aware that 35 million people die from chronic diseases globally each year, and that number is expected to grow considerably over time.

Furthermore, 80 percent of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, many of which continue to struggle with the already staggering impact of HIV and AIDS, maternal mortality, preventable child deaths and infectious diseases such as Ebola, malaria and tuberculosis. Because they usually develop during a person’s prime working years, NCDs also pose a significant challenge to economic development.

While countries need to lead the effort to prevent, treat and manage NCDs, the magnitude of this epidemic requires a coordinated response from a multitude of actors, including multilateral organizations, civil society and the private sector.

Consider what would happen, for instance, if we could leverage the knowledge of multinational companies and leading nongovernmental organizations to help tackle the challenges of chronic illness. We could, for example, make it easier for families to find healthier food options in the drive-thru lane or at the grocery store, dramatically reduce exposure to secondhand smoke at work, and enable more health workers to provide quality services to people in rural areas.

In fact, these are examples of initiatives already underway through commitments made by members of the Clinton Global Initiative, which harnesses the resources and know-how of industry and implementing organizations to address some of the knottiest problems in global health and development. After more than two decades in the private sector, I know that companies are often eager and willing to help develop global health solutions. But they need to be engaged more effectively in a way that supports their broader business and corporate responsibility goals. This is why Rabin Martin’s first CGI commitment explores how private sector and NGO expertise can be harnessed more systematically to tackle the NCD epidemic through strengthening health systems and addressing gaps in health policy, practice and research.

Rabin Martin has been an active member of CGI’s NCD Action Network, which gathers a dedicated group of corporations and NGOs to discuss salient problems, share experiences and put their collective brain power and material resources to work in developing practical solutions to tackle chronic disease.

We’ve learned that there are many companies and organizations already doing a lot in this area. From working with communities and employers to prevent and manage chronic illness to strengthening the capacity of health workers to diagnose and treat NCDs, companies such as AstraZeneca, Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald's, Novo Nordisk and others are using their knowledge and influence to improve health globally. Implementing agencies such as Management Sciences for Health, Jhpiego, Partners in Health, AmeriCares and Population Services International use their vast technical expertise and global networks to make chronic disease services more accessible to underserved communities. The formal and informal collaborations that result from our participation in the NCD Action Network leverage the complementary strengths of each sector to identify and meet critical health needs.

The greatest contribution of health care companies to public health is and always will be the research and development of medicines and technologies to diagnose, prevent, treat and manage disease. But here are some other ways that the private sector and their partners can and are working to reduce the burden of NCDs:

1.       Strengthening the health workforce. An estimated 1 billion people around the world have never seen a health worker. The private sector is bringing its expertise in attracting and retaining talent to bear by supporting governments and NGOs in helping to strengthen human resources for health. A great example of this is a CGI partnership between Medtronic — one of the largest medical device companies — and NGO Last Mile Health to support the integration of NCD training and diagnosis in Liberia.

2.       Making workplaces smoke-free. Employers have both an influence on the health of their employees and a mutual interest in ensuring that they remain healthy. If every major global and national company banned smoking in their workspaces and provided tools to help cigarette smokers quit, we would see drastic reductions in lung cancer rates, particularly in emerging economies such as China, India and Russia. The American Cancer Society, in partnership with Johnson & Johnson and others, has been leading the charge on this front. Along these same lines, the Vitality Institute and its partners are catalyzing enhanced workplace-based prevention efforts and behavior change.

3.       Creating healthier product offerings. Working in collaboration with civil society, governments and multilateral agencies, companies can move toward making healthier products more readily available. In Latin America, for example, a number of countries have effectively partnered with the food and beverage industry to reduce the salt content in bread.

4.       Reaching underserved populations. Getting products where they are needed most — in cost-effective, timely and reliable ways — is a core capability of many companies. Private sector knowledge about supply chains is invaluable in helping to prevent stockouts, ensure product integrity and reduce waste. Through CGI, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention is working with partners in industry, donor agencies and governments to reduce the proliferation of counterfeit drugs.

5.       Building healthy cities. With economic development comes urbanization and a subsequent rise in chronic disease rates. Cities and governments can invite various commercial enterprises to help reduce indoor and outdoor pollution, build healthier buildings and create pedestrian-friendly streets.

While companies can be and are engaged in a multitude of ways, it’s important to keep in mind that private sector partnerships are not a panacea for all the problems posed by chronic illness. But as a global community, we can work together to do more with less. Members of CGI’s NCD Action Network are collaborating in smart ways to make a difference. We all have an important part to play in reducing the burden of NCDs around the world.

My question is: What can you do to help?

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About the author

  • Jeffrey Sturchio

    Jeff Sturchio is president & CEO of Rabin Martin, a global health strategy firm. He is a global health thought leader and trusted counselor to senior leaders in the private sector, multilateral organizations, governments, NGOs and foundations. Previously, he was president & CEO of the Global Health Council and vice president of corporate responsibility at Merck & Co. Inc., president of The Merck Company Foundation and chairman of the U.S. Corporate Council on Africa.