The difference is striking. Only two years ago, the Geneva Health Forum (GHF) had a single session devoted to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). In 2012, the entire biennial meeting of the Global Health Programme at the Graduate Institute of Geneva was held under that theme. The hosts put together an innovative and courageous programme, covering aspects as diverse as they were important.

I was invited to join the panel on “Global and National NCD platforms”, at which I discussed the importance of the economic dimension of NCDs. A deeper understanding of the immense economic burden of NCDs is key to mobilizing all actors, to organizing NCD platforms, to reflecting the multistakeholder nature of NCDs, and to highlighting the need for the health sector to engage with other sectors and industries.

Of all deaths worldwide, 63% stem from NCDs. Over the next 20 years, they will cost more than US$ 30 trillion, representing 48% of global GDP in 2010, and will push millions of people below the poverty line. Mental health conditions alone will account for the loss of an additional US$ 16.1 trillion over this time-span and will take a toll on productivity and quality of life.

Why then can we be optimistic about NCDs? The answer is simple. The fact that an organization, for years mostly active in tropical and humanitarian medicine, now clearly understands the challenge of NCDs and set up such a comprehensive programme, shows us that barriers between stakeholders are breaking down. For example, beyond their traditional academic and NGO audience, the GHF invited several business participants – including non-health, private sector representatives – to participate in sessions and interactive panels. Companies created an “NCD café” at which participants were welcome to discuss the value of partnerships for the prevention and control of NCDs.

It is wonderful to witness the progress achieved. The above-mentioned steps are an excellent indication of how the understanding of the NCDs challenge is evolving and of how a change of mindset is being brought about. Such steps include the decision to move NCDs to the top of the agenda to broaden the scope of sessions and to increase the diversity of participants.

I wish to congratulate GHF for this courageous move. In their own words, this “critical shift to chronic diseases” and their willingness to promote “learning from the frontliners” are positive signs of how the challenge of NCDs can trigger much needed transformation. It is this that the World Economic Forum strives to promote and facilitate.

Author: Olivier Raynaud is Senior Director, Global Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland.

Photo: A surgery nurse is seen beside the heart beat monitor in the operating theatre of a hospital in Berlin February 29, 2008. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch