At a time when the global economy is still licking its wounds, Latin America has quietly continued a renaissance that began at the turn of the millennium. Despite some lingering challenges, democracy has spread, the middle class has grown, and exports and direct foreign investments have boomed. The results are impressive. Brazil has enabled 40 million to rise up from poverty. Peru is forecasted to achieve around 5.5% growth in 2014. Medellín in Colombia, once a city synonymous with extreme drug-fuelled violence, was voted Most Innovative City in the World in 2013. And Panama went from a declining economy to a business star in a decade, while sustaining a boom in real estate.

Latin America’s positive trends are testament to the human capacity to overcome adversity and tap into our innate talents and aspirations. To continue its upward trajectory, however, Latin American will have to do more than craft trade agreements and attract investors. It will need to create the best possible conditions for its young people to lead meaningful, healthy and productive lives. Latin America has one of the youngest populations of this planet, with approximately 20% of the population between the age of 15 and 24. Depending on the decisions we make, these people can either be a growing burden on the healthcare system, or a healthy driver of increased prosperity.

Latin American youth are better off than their parents in many ways, but they still face a number of socio-economic challenges that undermine their health. Teen pregnancy is known to perpetuate poverty among young women and is associated with higher rates of HIV infection, sexual violence and maternal death. Obesity is a major cause of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and some forms of cancer. Despite significant progress, access to education remains a challenge in Latin America, and gaps in education are linked to increased drug use and violence. By one estimate, societal violence reduces Latin American GDP by 13%.

These and other challenges facing Latin America’s youth are systemic in nature. They are the result of pockets of poverty, income inequality, engrained gender roles and lifestyle choices. In addition, they are exacerbated by limited access to preventative healthcare services and education around sexuality and proper diet.

These problems are far from insurmountable. In fact, all the ingredients are there to significantly strengthen Latin America’s healthcare system so that young people can thrive rather than survive. Healthcare education is one step, because it allows people to make smart life choices and avoid certain health problems. Another prerequisite is long-term investments in the technology used for prevention and treatment of disease. Here, the region’s lack of infrastructure can even be an advantage, as it can encourage new approaches to “leapfrog” limitations and embrace cutting-edge solutions in home healthcare and telemedicine, without needing to upgrade old technologies or dismantle old infrastructures.

Strengthening the region’s healthcare system is too complex a challenge for any single entity to realize. Partnerships between public and private organizations are a far more effective way to achieve results. My own company Philips, for example, has partnered with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which promotes healthy sexual and reproductive lives among youth. Deborah DiSanzo, Chief Executive Officer of Philips Healthcare, chairs Health Systems Leapfrogging in Emerging Economies. This is a three-year WEF program that aims to revolutionize the healthcare systems of emerging economies.

Partnerships can also bring healthcare to people in remote and often poor areas. Philips has worked with local healthcare organizations to deploy mobile units into the remote areas of Chile, Argentina and Brazil. These units perform thousands of diagnoses each year, screening for breast cancer and giving early ultrasounds and advice to newly expecting mothers. The simple act of taking healthcare to the people can significantly cut waiting lists at hospitals and means that people receive the medical care they need more quickly.

Latin America’s youth hold the key to its future. If we provide them with the proper care and encouragement, they will develop into leaders, innovators and workers that will bring more prosperity to the region. Investing in affordable and accessible healthcare may be one of the most effective ways to boost the region’s competitiveness for decades, perhaps even generations to come.

Author: Henk de Jong, Chief Executive Officer, Philips, Latin America, Royal Philips, BrazilHe is participating in the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2014 in Panama City.

Image: A Kayapo child does inhalation on the sixth day of a medical expedition of the “Expedicionarios da Saude” (Brazilian Health Expeditions) in Kikretum community in Sao Felix, northern Brazil April 26, 2011. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes