The human race is growing in numbers and living longer. It’s estimated that by 2050 there will be an additional 2 billion people – and average life expectancy will be closer to 80 years of age versus 70 today.

Or even longer – the cover of a recent issue of Time magazine, accompanied by a photograph of a newborn, declared “This Baby Could Live to Be 142 Years Old”.

While this is good news, it obviously means increased healthcare needs and costs.

At the same time, we’re witnessing a human resource shortfall. Fewer people are qualifying as doctors and nurses in developed countries; as a result, more and more frontline healthcare professionals are being poached from the developing world.

Combined, this means that the healthcare systems of developed markets and emerging economies are becoming increasingly unaffordable and unsustainable.

Health is wealth

Yet the wealth of a nation is directly related to the health of a nation. Even as costs spiral and resources reduce, a nation cannot afford to limit access to healthcare for its citizens.

Bill Gates observed recently that epidemics and war both cost as much in “blood and treasure”, but only war seems to be taken seriously by politicians. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa infected around 25,000 people, killing more than 10,000, and will cost affected countries at least $1.6 billion in economic growth in 2015, according to the World Bank. A global flu epidemic could dwarf that by shrinking world economic activity by 5%.

The good news is that people want to be more empowered in protecting, maintaining and enhancing their own health.

In fact, for many people consumer health is their first and sometimes only choice in healthcare. For example, one way to boost public health is to arm people with the tools and education to stop the spread of disease, as we’ve seen in our partnership with Save the Children focused on reducing child mortality from diarrhoea.

Self-healthcare is something that we need to expand if we are going to make real inroads into solving health challenges of the future.

Is that feasible? Yes, but it requires three fundamental changes.

Regulating health

First, we need to address regulatory reform.

Society needs sound regulation to ensure that only safe and effective products are part of consumers’ daily lives. But if we accept that self-healthcare must have a greater role, then the system to regulate those products needs to be fit for purpose.

We live in a global economy and while we recognize and respect cultural, racial and gender differences, there is a universal truth that human biology is fundamentally similar whether you are in Shanghai, Seattle or Southampton. Once safety, efficacy and appropriate use are established, we should aim to make consumer health products universally available.

Harmonization of approvals would promote greater access to consumer health while also driving innovation.

This is why I think it might be time for a Consumer Health Summit bringing together key stakeholders including government bodies, industry associations, individual companies, healthcare professionals, consumer groups and patient advocates.

Early stakeholder involvement, a commitment to expedite timings, incentives on data exclusivity and a more rapid uptake of a new risk-benefit model could be some of the calls to action for this gathering of experts.

Consumer-centric healthcare

Secondly, when developing healthcare solutions, we must never step away from the day-to-day lives of people. We need to retool innovation for a more consumer-centric focus in the development of drugs, devices and delivery.

However, in addition to developing innovative products, we should provide holistic health solutions that include consumer education and behaviour change mechanisms to drive more effective self-care management. We can also deploy new partners in facilitating self-care, such as giving pharmacists a role in the frontline of healthcare delivery, such as we’ve see in a campaign to reduce pressure on England’s National Health Service.

The digital doctor

And finally, we need to look at how to better leverage the 24/7 digital platform to enable people to manage their health more collaboratively with doctors and pharmacists – and even on their own.

Smartphones and wearable devices are being bought every day, empowering consumers to have even more control of their well-being. Prevention, diagnosis and monitoring of general wellness or minor illnesses are all possible.

Healthcare systems will struggle to cope with the very significant demographic shifts we are seeing and more consumer self-healthcare is an essential effective, lower cost solution.

Consumers want to be empowered with better access, better choice, better information and digitally connected solutions to enable them to manage their own health more effectively. All participants in the healthcare continuum – governments, industry, doctors, nurses, researchers and patients themselves – need to work together to make this a reality.

Author: Rakesh Kapoor is Chief Executive Officer of Reckitt Benckiser

Image: Surgeons perform a total knee arthroplasty operation in an operating room at the Ambroise Pare hospital in Marseille, southern France, April 14, 2008. REUTERS/ Jean-Paul Pelissier