As the Ebola virus in West Africa wanes, multilateral and bilateral donors along with NGOs and country governments are making a concerted push to strengthen health systems across the developing world to protect against future health crises.
But at what point does health systems strengthening become a good business investment for the private sector?
The U.K.-based pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline PLC announced today that it will invest more than $9 million over the course of three years to support the training of more than 9,000 health workers in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.
The initiative, in partnership with nongovernmental organizations Amref Health Africa, the One Million Community Health Workers Campaign and Save the Children, is designed to train health care workers to manage noncommunicable diseases, treat mothers, children, and newborns, and build an evidence base that makes the case for both public and private investments in the health sector.
So why does such an investment make business sense?
By investing in health infrastructure in developing economies, GSK can help to create a market and a demand for its products, said Ramil Burden, vice president for Africa and developing countries at the organization.
“You cannot just simply complain as a company that the infrastructure doesn’t exist and therefore there is no market. You have a role actually in creating that market,” he said.
GSK has prioritized investing in health systems since at least 2009, when it began reinvesting 20 percent of the profits it generated in the least developed countries back into the health systems of those countries. In 2013 the company partnered with Save the Children to ensure that vaccines were available to children in poverty. And within the last year, GSK opened a lab for research into noncommunicable diseases and engaged with universities throughout Africa to support science and health training programs.
Burden explained that by introducing better health care workers in communities and educating the public about medical treatment options, families will begin to seek out care and treatments, including pharmaceuticals.
“By working with community health care workers, we are creating an ecosystem that improves health outcomes and also increases demand in the system,” Burden said.
For pharmaceutical companies such as GSK, the business case for investing in health infrastructure may seem more robust and clear cut than for other companies that don’t have direct links to the health sector. But Burden thinks other companies also have a lot to gain from healthier communities that could jumpstart markets in other sectors.
“I thought the [fast moving consumer goods] companies, the [telecommunication] companies … would come in behind this. But actually … they haven’t,” Burden said, adding that it can be hard to demonstrate the long-term benefit of the investment.
Through GSK’s latest investment in Ghana, the pharmaceutical company in partnership with the One Million Community Health Workers Campaign and the Ghanaian government intend to build an evidence base demonstrating the effectiveness of the different types of training healthcare workers receive, the health outcomes achieved and — Burden hopes — the value for money.
“This is really about showing that this is a good investment,” Burden said.
If they can demonstrate that, Burden and his team hope to create a “catalytic effect” in which the Ghanaian government enacts a national community health care worker program, and other private sector actors see a reason to invest in health systems.
What are some other ways to strengthen the case for investment in health systems? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Join Devex to network with peers, discover talent and forge new partnerships in international development — it’s free. Then sign up for the Devex Impact newsletter to receive cutting-edge news and analysis at the intersection of business and development.