Opinion: Partnering for impact — how private sector partners help strengthen health systems

Nurse-midwives enrolled in a GSK-supported eLearning program in Eastern Uganda. Photo by: Sam Vox / Amref Health Africa UK

Everywhere in the world, COVID-19 has highlighted inequalities, particularly in access to health care. The accelerated need to tackle the coronavirus has resulted in unprecedented scientific collaborations. Many companies that are more used to working separately, including GlaxoSmithKline, are now working together on vaccines and therapeutic treatments.

This multiorganizational approach needs to be replicated in the efforts to build prepared and resilient health systems and infrastructure in the longer term. At the simplest level, without good health systems, lifesaving medicines and vaccines won’t reach the most underserved communities.

GSK’s science-led global health strategy and commitment to Sustainable Development Goal 3, on health and well-being for all, use our science and innovation to tackle some of the biggest infectious disease threats facing humankind. As well as our COVID-19 programs, we have a portfolio of global health medicines and vaccines, and candidate medicines and vaccines, to help fight malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, and neglected tropical diseases.

However, while we believe that the biggest value we can offer society is through our scientific innovation, we have also worked for many years with partners, from NGOs, civil society, and government, to help get rid of barriers to health access in low-resource settings. This is not our core business, and to have a real impact, we choose partners with expertise in this area and strong links with local communities.

Work with partners who place communities at the center

Since 2010, we have worked closely with Amref Health Africa, CARE International, and Save the Children, acting alongside governments to run health care programs in low-income settings. Our biggest area of focus to date has been training local health workers, who can then bring better health care and knowledge into the heart of communities. Through consistent commitment and support, together we’ve trained over 100,000 front-line health workers across 43 countries and reached 15 million people, according to project data.

Duty of Care

They may seem like superheroes, but doctors, nurses, midwives, and community health workers need support too. This content series takes a look at how health systems can function better so that health care workers are supported, protected, and empowered.

I have been lucky enough to meet some of these health workers and be inspired by their stories. In Nairobi in December 2019, I met Juliana, who began informally volunteering in her community 30 years ago during the HIV epidemic, when sick neighbors would ask her to help look after their children. She described how she’d sit and comfort dying mothers and wish she could do more to help — but without formal training, she didn’t know how.

That desire to help never left her, and a few years later, Juliana started receiving training and support from Amref Health Africa, Africa’s leading public health NGO. She is now an established community health worker in Nairobi County who is regarded as an expert in her community, educating people and helping them access health care services they need — and having a greater impact than she could ever have dreamed of 30 years ago.

Aisha* waits with her daughter Hajara* during a visit to an outpatient therapeutic nutrition site at Kimeri, Maiduguri. Photo by: Tommy Trenchard / Save the Children

We are particularly proud of our long-term, far-reaching partnership with Save the Children UK, which brings together the two organizations’ global expertise, skills, and energy to improve the health of children under 5 in some of the world’s most challenging contexts. This partnership has been running since 2013 and, according to internal project data, has directly reached over 3 million children under 5 in 46 countries.

While we believe that the biggest value we can offer society is through our scientific innovation, we have also worked for many years with partners … with expertise … and strong links with local communities.

Respond quickly in the short term, invest in health systems in the long term

Unusually in this sector, programs are governed by a joint steering committee, comprising Save the Children’s and GSK’s leaders and experts. This collaborative way of working allows us to act quickly and be flexible in our approach. When COVID-19 first hit, we were able to reallocate resources in 14 existing programs to support training on infection prevention, surveillance and control, and procurement of personal protective equipment, while staying focused on the provision of essential health services for communities.

We work with many other great partners, all with the same aim of improving health care in the world’s most underserved communities.

With Comic Relief, we focus on combating malaria and strengthening health care systems in low-income settings through health worker training, community education, bolstering of surveillance systems, and in-country advocacy. And with Smile Train, we help support resources, funding, and training for local medical professionals in more than 90 countries, empowering them to provide ongoing cleft care in their own communities.

We have learned to rely on the expertise of others. We have learned that to be truly impactful and sustainable, we have to go beyond traditional philanthropy by working closely with governments and local communities. We have learned that real change takes a long time and requires lasting commitment. Most of all, we have learned that the impact of best-practice partnerships can be enormous.

But we are still among a relatively small number of companies getting involved. We would be delighted to share our learnings with other organizations considering starting similar partnerships — for instance, a Durham University report on the impact and lessons from our 10 years of health worker training with Amref Health Africa, CARE International, and Save the Children that is due in 2021.

Now, during this devastating pandemic, it is time for more companies to engage in collaborations to help more people live healthier lives.

Visit the Duty of Care series for more coverage on how health systems can function better so that health care workers are supported and protected. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #DutyOfCare.

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

About the author

  • Fiona Smith-Laittan

    Fiona Smith-Laittan is vice president and head of GlaxoSmithKline’s global health unit, which coordinates GSK’s enterprisewide global health activities led by three global businesses — pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and consumer — and focus on the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases in children and adolescents in the lowest-income countries, as well as corporate global health programs.