Q&A: Putting health workers at the center of global health goals

A midwife-in-training, supported through the partnership with Johnson & Johnson and UNICEF to empower indigenous midwifery. Photo by: Johnson & Johnson

BARCELONA — Health care giant Johnson & Johnson announces a new Center for Health Worker Innovation — uniting body for the company’s efforts to empower and strengthen the global health workforce — in the hopes of galvanizing a global movement to tackle the global health workforce challenge.

According to the World Health Organization, a further 18 million health workers are needed to help achieve universal health coverage and realize SDG 3 of good health for all, particularly in low- and lower-middle income countries.

“So now, we’ve flipped our approach because we understand that the opportunity for impact is actually greater because you're not going after one population or one disease, but the one link to the health system that communities trust — the health worker.”

— Lauren Moore, vice president of global community impact, Johnson & Johnson

The Center for Health Worker Innovation leverages a people-first model and focuses on equipping nurses, midwives, and community health workers across the globe with skills, resources, and support they need to best serve their local communities. By bolstering the health workforce, Lauren Moore, vice president of global community impact at Johnson & Johnson, said it will have a knock-on effect for improved health outcomes globally.

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“If you really want universal access to health care, one of the key components is the health worker,” she said, adding that many organizations simply focus on hospital systems or products. “But, in reality, if you don't have access to primary care through a health worker who can really support what you need, there is a huge gap in the system.”

Speaking to Devex, Moore explained why Johnson & Johnson is putting health workers at the heart of its global health approach and explained why it’s so key that companies translate pledges into actions.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us more about this new announcement?

We're very excited about zooming in even further on our focus on health workers and understanding the needs of the most underserved in the world. At Johnson & Johnson, we prioritize nurses, midwives, and community health workers; making sure there's enough of them, they're in the places where they’re most needed, and that they have the skills, capabilities, and resilience to deliver in that really tough job.

We believe that one of the ways Johnson & Johnson can truly make a difference here is by elevating the importance of the health worker and focusing our efforts to enable them to deliver at their full potential. We have a human resource crisis in global health, and we will fall short in achieving universal health coverage and SDG3 if we do not have the people to deliver care.

Before we might have focused on maternal and child health, or mental health, or noncommunicable diseases — and other colleagues within Johnson & Johnson do focus on those. More often than not, however, the intervention we felt would have transformative impact on those outcomes was more and better-supported nurses, midwives, and community health workers.

So now, we’ve flipped our approach because we understand that the opportunity for impact is actually greater because you're not going after one population or one disease, but the one link to the health system that communities trust — the health worker.

What does this mean on a practical level?

We’re excited to announce the launch of the Center for Health Worker Innovation because no single institution can solve this great need, and we have challenged ourselves at Johnson & Johnson to imagine what we can uniquely do as the world’s largest diversified health company to attract internal and external allies to this cause.

Internally, the Center for Health Worker Innovation is the uniting body for our company’s efforts to empower and strengthen our global health workforce. Externally, we seek to be a central space to iterate and scale solutions that address the health worker gap, improve quality care, and strengthen primary, community-based health systems.

For Johnson & Johnson, we've got major investments underway that focus on building skills and capabilities. For example, we’ll be looking to refresh options for supporting leadership and management programs for health workers to not just deliver quality care but assume leadership roles.

For many years, we've worked through coalitions and associations, including the International Confederation of Midwives, to more deeply understand the needs of frontline health workers. Now more than ever we need to remain laser focused on working closely with key stakeholders to make sure we really appreciate what the health worker needs and deliver for them.

We'll be partnering with organizations through grants, investing in small businesses and early ideas involving health workers, and we've got several programs — whether it is a scholarship program for an educational facility or different incentives — to both bring people into the profession as well as keep them there.

Do you think enough private companies are making commitments like this to address global issues?

Companies are getting better and better, and there’s no question the demand and expectation on companies has changed, but of course, we can always improve. Early on in my career at Starbucks and eBay, there was not an expectation of companies to be part of solving big social and environmental problems. Now it’s quite clear that every part of the system across all sectors has to contribute, and I do believe the private sector has unique expertise, resources, and people to bring to the table and so now I think there’s more of an expectation to be there.

What would you say have been the key lessons that Johnson & Johnson has learned through its experiences in contributing to global health issues?

Being a part of the solution — for the planet and its people — is a huge factor in whether or not your business is successful. If you look back, there certainly were people who said you would never link anything like corporate social responsibility back to business results or you should not spend money on those kinds of projects and programs because it should go to your shareholders. That’s no longer the case, and just this month, CEO Alex Gorsky reinforced this pledge through the business roundtable’s new statement on the purpose of a corporation. It’s clear now that your “how” has to be as good as your “what.”

Going forward, what is the next frontier for Johnson & Johnson in taking on some of the biggest challenges in health?

We hope that the Center for Health Worker Innovation will be the kind of disruption the world needs to hone our efforts to improve global health by focusing on the health worker. As we look at the health of local communities, we have to deeply understand what's needed within these local systems.

Fundamental to shaping this impact will be partnerships and collaboration with associations, ministries of health, and more to ensure sustainability. At Johnson & Johnson, we hope to use our size and reach to scale and almost modularize some of this work. We will learn things and we will potentially be able to, with some modifications, bring them to more than one place.

The Center of Health Worker Innovation will be the learning ground, meeting place, and — we hope — brain trust for partners and innovators from across the world to leverage the power of the local idea with the hope of a global impact. The year 2030 will be here before we know it and how we resource our most vital health resource — the health worker — will dramatically affect our success in achieving good health for all.

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