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Here’s how to improve access to healthcare around the world

A control monitor is seen during a heart catheterization at the Heidelberg University Hospital (Universitaetsklinikum Heidelberg) in Heidelberg, Germany, August 14, 2018. Picture taken August 14, 2018. To match Insight HEALTHCARE-MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY/AI   REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski - RC1F75477B00

Digital technology can transform primary healthcare services for all. Image: REUTERS/Ralph Orlowsk

Frans van Houten
Chief Executive Officer, Co-Chair PACE, Royal Philips
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Where you are born has an impact on your access to universal healthcare.
  • Digital technology will upgrade healthcare services in emerging nations.
  • Payers, healthcare providers and partners must be incentivized according to outcomes.

As we enter a new decade, stakeholder models of capitalism are gaining more attention than ever. By following a path long-pursued by European companies, the Business Roundtable decision to embrace long-term value creation over short-term profits has injected welcome oxygen into the debate over the role and relevance of companies. It’s an approach Philips has upheld as a global innovator for nearly 130 years – directing our innovation resources to unmet needs to improve lives for the customers and communities we serve.

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Today, Philips is fully focused on health technology and we articulate this purpose through our goal to improve 3 billion lives a year by 2030, by making the world healthier and more sustainable. In this article, I want to focus on one of the urgent issues in global healthcare – ensuring affordable and high-quality access to care.

Access to care and social determinants of health: overcoming the postcode lottery

The reasons why we focus on affordable and high-quality access to care are all too clear. Up to 3.5 billion people – half the world’s population – still don’t receive the health services they need. And 800 million people spend at least 10% of their household budgets on health expenses for themselves, a sick child or other family member, sending 100 million of those people into extreme poverty.

While this is an urgent issue in emerging low-and middle-income countries, sustainable access to care is also a severe issue in industrialized countries where social determinants have a direct link to the economic and social opportunities afforded to one population over another.

Tantamount to a postcode lottery, the social determinants of health affect both urban and rural communities and it’s a troubling fact that, even in the wealthiest nations, where you are born decisively impacts your access to universal healthcare. Moreover, place of birth is a key indicator of lifestyle, diet and disease prospects – with diminished life expectancy for those in underserved communities.

The global view is of a fragmented and unequal healthcare system where all too often the gaps in society are widening. For years universal health coverage has been discussed, but little progress has been accomplished. Sure, universal health coverage is complex and multifaceted, but it’s also an exciting area of innovation, whereby a multi-stakeholder model in combination with digital technologies can support sustainable transformation of primary healthcare services for all.

For Philips, we see this as a sustainable growth opportunity that aligns with our goal to improve lives; a win-win scenario for Philips and the communities we serve, where we can unlock value for all stakeholders; also being mindful to act responsibly when it comes to the affordability and resilience of the solutions we offer.

But we cannot achieve this alone, we need to engage companies, governments and customer communities in mutually beneficial business models and resilient progressive partnerships. With this in mind, let’s consider some examples of stakeholder capitalism and inclusive innovation in action.

Transforming access to care in low and middle-income countries

The adoption of digital healthcare tools and services is a vital step towards upgrading the quality and consistency of healthcare services in emerging nations. However, infrastructure limitations – no or poor power supply, hard to reach locations, security issues – can be insurmountable for a narrow set of partners. All too often, communities are reliant on unsustainable philanthropy and NGOs for a subset of healthcare needs, and there is a stark absence of foundational capacity and technologies like nursing, medicine supplies, electronic health records, ultrasound screening, to name just a few.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Philips has pioneered Community Life Centers to help break this deadlock with an approach that’s rooted in multi-stakeholder capitalism. Bringing together a diverse group of partners – national and local government, impacted communities, and service providers like Philips – Community Life Centers offer resilient, community-owned healthcare clinics.

These clinics offer integrated healthcare enabled by digital technologies and capacity building services, like education and staff training, all under one roof. Solar power units, clean water, LED lighting and solutions for waste management mean that the centres also go far beyond healthcare to act as an economic and social development driver for the community.

Today, Philips operates 10 Community Life Centers – across Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Ethiopia, including other digital health solutions in Asia, treating close to half a million patients each year.

It’s a proven concept providing value for all partners, making Community Life Centers sustainable, flexible and ready to scale. And in solving infrastructure and network challenges, the clinics pave the way for “local for local” targeted innovation in medical devices and connected care, by using resilient technologies, population health and virtual services at a fair and competitive price point.


Philips’ work to bring cloud-based ultrasound services to Rwanda is a good example of this approach. In partnership with PURE, an organization focused on ultrasound education and research, the Philips Lumify (a portable ultrasound device that connects with Android and iOS tablets) has been integrated with the “Reacts” cloud platform – unlocking affordable “virtual” ultrasound. The solution effectively connects primary carers in Rwanda with clinicians in the US and Europe, remotely, and in real-time. This enables sustainable training for local caregivers while simultaneously offering a rapid increase in care capacity together with better health outcomes for the patient.

Networked care: addressing the social determinants of health

In mature markets, cloud-based services also support improved access and outcomes, especially for populations in rural settings. For example, remote farming communities are often situated many hours away from the specialist diagnostic and treatment services needed to support complex diseases like cancer.

Too often, patients are reliant on general hospitals ill-equipped to deal with specialist cases. However, rural health systems are helping to overcome this blind spot – connecting regional care centres with specialist hubs of expertise, equipped with the staff and technology required by the patient. Sticking with the cancer care example, innovation in this field is increasing the capacity and coverage of important services like tele-radiology, digital pathology and genomics; enhancing the patient’s likelihood of a first-time right diagnosis.

Networked care is also improving outcomes and experiences in chronic disease management – a vital area in overcoming the social determinants of health. One major healthcare institution that has seized the networked care opportunity is the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Many ageing veterans living in remote locations have to cope with one or more significant chronic conditions – making convenient access to care imperative to avoiding hospital stays and remaining independent at home.

Philips home telehealth programmes provide daily connection between post-acute caregivers and patients, integrating connected technologies with clinical care pathways. For example, with in-home monitoring devices, clinicians can monitor patients’ vital signs remotely: identifying symptoms and intervening early to avoid unnecessary hospital admissions and visits to the emergency department. While it is just the beginning of the journey, there are great opportunities to achieve a breakthrough in access to primary care.

Unlocking impact and scale through business model innovation

When it comes to achieving meaningful scale and access, the challenge again falls on how you combine investment and innovation built on a digital health network with an attractive business model. With global levels of disease on the rise, to tackle the current cycle of inconsistent access, rising costs and falling health outcomes, we first need a new approach to traditional volume-based reimbursements in healthcare, which can act as a constraint in the effective use of health data and the adoption of eHealth solutions.

To challenge the status quo, the situation calls for an inclusive model, whereby payers, healthcare providers and supporting partners, like Philips, are incentivized according to the quality (and outcomes) delivered.

For example, considering lifestyle-related chronic disease, by aligning market forces and making payments according to quality and outcomes actively incentivizes more preventative care. This also paves the way for increased investment in artificial intelligence and democratic services like population health management – rigorously applying health data to stratify and treat patient cohorts, according to evidence-based trends.

With more companies waking up to the economic and societal benefits of a multi-stakeholder approach, I am full of optimism that the new decade will emerge as a time when digital technology, inclusive innovation and progressive partnerships step up to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, including tackling healthcare’s global access and quality constraints. At Philips, we’ll continue to play our part.

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