We are living in an age of extraordinary progress in health. While the world is having great difficulty coming together on common objectives – from trade to geopolitics – health is a rare bright spot.
Life expectancy has more than doubled over the past century. Today, 4 million children live every year who would have died before the age of five only 15 years ago. Although there remain worrying disparities in health within and between countries, it’s worth reflecting on what has brought about this improvement and the challenges that lie ahead to usher in the next leap forward in health and well-being.
In the late 1990s, the world was still reeling from the onslaught of HIV/AIDS, endemic malaria and resurgent TB (including multi-drug-resistant strains). In many parts of Africa, life expectancies were declining. Currently, death rates from these diseases have peaked and are in decline, while child mortality is not only decreasing, but decreasing at an accelerating rate.
What’s powerful is that these results have not come from one approach or from one organization, but from an extraordinary level of multistakeholder and multidisciplinary cooperation. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) provided the vital focus of time-bound targets, while different people and organizations have come together to play their part, including national governments, companies, aid programmes, charities and citizen activists. This didn’t come easily. In some cases, it amounted to a forced fusion of ideas, for instance, when HIV/AIDS activists made people take notice of a stigmatized catastrophe.
New funding mechanisms like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation shook things up, helping to support and share best practices, wherever they came from. Many different factors – from development assistance (government-backed programmes) to the coordinating powers of the World Health Organization – underpinned huge improvements in curbing infectious diseases.
Business has also played a role. Healthcare companies have developed and reduced the price of key pharmaceuticals, including anti-retroviral drugs used to manage HIV, while tiered pricing has given people in developing countries access to medicines and vaccines that weren’t available before. The rise of sophisticated companies in the South has helped to provide cheap generic drugs and affordable, life-saving products such as insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria.
With the debate heating up on what the post-2015 development goals should look like, the opportunity in health is shifting from not just keeping people alive, but to ensuring they’re healthy. The spectre of non-communicable diseases (NDCs) – chronic conditions like diabetes, heart diseases, depression and cancer – looms large in developed and developing countries. As well as grinding down individual lives, these problems take a huge toll on the economy.
A recent World Economic Forum study showed that NCDs could cause a global output loss of US$ 47 trillion over the next 20 years if left unchecked. Tackling NDCs will mean taking a much broader approach to health. Just as the last wave of development started out with the right goals being set in a clear way, the next stage will be similar – except the goals will be more ambitious and holistic.
Improving health shouldn’t just be about providing drugs or doctors, but about enabling healthier lifestyles, whether through urban design, environmental standards, healthier workplaces or different corporate marketing campaigns. In the private sector, food and beverage companies will take more responsibility for the health of their customers, while sports companies, telecommunications and the media could become as important as pharmaceutical firms in promoting well-being.
The World Economic Forum is uniquely placed to bring together the people – from policy-makers and non-governmental organization workers to business leaders – who can make a difference in fighting ill health. Our Healthy Living Initiative helps governments form policies to prevent and control NCDs, while the Sustainable Health Systems project looks at how to make health services more efficient.
More collaboration at every level will be essential to capitalize on the legacy of the last 15 years and ensure that the prognosis for global health remains bright.
In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Health Team, a number of leading voices present their perspectives on health and healthcare in the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April.
Author: Robert Greenhill is Managing Director and Chief Business Officer of the World Economic Forum.