• Key trends in health for 2020 are the rise in non-communicable diseases like cancer and diabetes, the burden of mental ill health and the role of tech.
  • Great strides in global health mask huge inequalities in the burden of disease.
  • Air pollution is a health crisis killing over 4 million people a year.

At the start of a new decade, the state of global health is something of a paradox.

On the one hand, there’s much to celebrate: global life expectancy has risen to 72 years, child mortality rates have halved since 1990, maternal mortality fell 38% between 2000 and 2017, and humanity is routing age-old foes such as polio, which has been 99% eliminated.

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The long view: life expectancy in selected countries, and the global average
Image: Our World in Data

However, the big picture masks grotesque inequalities between rich and poor countries and worrying trends even in the wealthy world.

Mental ill health remains an epidemic: more than one in ten people worldwide suffer from some kind of mental disorder, with depression and anxiety alone costing the economy $1 trillion a year as well as taking a terrible human toll. In low-income countries, there are only two mental health workers for every 100,000 people.

In industrialised and emerging economies, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, diabetes and heart disease are on the rise, threatening to reverse gains in life expectancy. Obesity is woven into the challenge, while air pollution alone is a health crisis, killing more than 4 million people a year. All too often, health systems struggle with dysfunctional incentives that fail to deliver high quality and efficient care. Globally, a lack of skilled health workers is also critical, with a shortfall of 18 million workers globally predicted by 2030.

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Unequal world: the burden of disease in different countries
Image: Our World in Data

Meanwhile, in poor countries, children are 10 times more likely to die before the age of five than their peers in the rich world. Conflict, mass displacement and climate change all add new dimensions to ancient miseries.

At the start of 2020, the revolution in technology will be one of the key trends in healthcare as in virtually every other sector. The age of big data opens up huge potential for tailored treatments, better detection of diseases and new cures, but brings with it ethical questions around fair access and the use of personal information.

What the experts say

Ahead of Davos 2020, here are some insights from participants who have written for Agenda.

Obesity is not "an unstoppable trend," writes Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"It is clear that the growth in obesity is not simply about children or families making 'bad choices'. Around the world, the spread of ‘obesogenic’ environments – settings that promote unhealthy eating and discourage physical activity – is a key factor. Within these environments, unhealthy foods are cheap and readily available, while healthier foods are harder to find and are often expensive."

"Right now, between 30 and 50% of all cancers are preventable, so businesses can make a substantial impact by providing employees and community members with practical tools such as free screenings and tobacco-cessation programs," writes Julie Louise Gerberding, Executive Vice President & Chief Patient Officer at the company MSD.

“I was diagnosed with PTSD when I was very young,” says Grace Gatera, a mental health campaigner who was traumatised as an infant by the genocide in Rwanda.

“I remember feeling ignored or punished – it was either one or the other. And it made me very sad... I thought, ‘if I'm pretending to be sick why does it hurt? Is it meant to be painful when you pretend?’ And that's basically how I grew up.”

"Our global healthcare systems are focused on the wrong interaction point—when people are already sick," write Kelly Barnes and Rana Mehta at PwC. They outline five ways to create healthier societies and reverse the rise in obesity and NCDs.

What's coming up at Davos

From the anti-vaccine movement to the fight against Alzheimer's, many of the key trends in health will be on the Davos agenda. You can follow all the sessions from Davos here, and follow the meeting across social media using the hashtag #WEF20. Highlights about health will appear here. You can submit your own ideas on how to open up access to healthcare, and six other ways to make the world a fairer place, here.

Three of the best: