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Women’s health: rethinking the cost as an investment for societal gain

Economics of Women’s Health: a session developed as part of the Women's Health Initiative of the World Economic Forum.

Economics of Women’s Health: a session developed as part of the Women's Health Initiative of the World Economic Forum. Image: World Economic Forum/Manuel Lope

Shyam Bishen
Head, Centre for Health and Healthcare; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
Kevin Ali
CEO, Organon
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The pandemic resulted in a harmful backsliding on women’s health and without more investment, we won’t be able to regain progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Investment in women is unrivalled in its return on the investment for the health of all of society.
  • An estimated $300 million investment into research focused on women could yield a $13 billion economic return.

When it comes to the health and wellbeing of women, we are at a critical juncture. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a devastating backsliding on women’s health – and without increased investment, we won’t be able to take back the losses inflicted by the pandemic and regain progress against the SDGs.

This was recognized in a main session at the World Economic Forum earlier this week. The session gathered global leaders from across sectors to discuss the significant economic benefits of investing in women and how to accelerate global prioritization and investment in health to create a healthier, more equitable world for all.

Women’s health is wealth

For too long, women and their families have been left to deal with unmet health needs and their physical, economic and social costs. It has been seen as their individual issue – and this needs to change.

Investment in women is unrivaled in its return on the investment for the health of all of society. When we invest in women’s health, we’re not only investing in individual women, but their families and their communities, as well as their country’s economy and future. Consider the following:

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Finding solutions to turn the tide

During the session, panelists covered a broad range of focus areas, highlighting best practices, innovative approaches, and the path forward when it comes to improving the health of women and girls.

Empowering women to prevent unintended pregnancies: Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of millions of women were without access to family planning services. The pandemic then created significant disruptions in access to contraception, worsening the issue. According to UNFPA research, disruptions in access to family planning services and supplies led 12 million women in 115 countries to lose access to birth control – and to as many as 1.4 million unplanned pregnancies. It’s no surprise that today, half of all pregnancies are unintended.

Much more must be done to broaden access to family planning in the context of sustainable development. There have been several cross-sector partnerships, which has improved the availability of birth control options. Moving forward, the focus needs to be on reducing geographic disparities to ensure that no matter where a woman lives, she has access to modern contraception methods. Because when women are empowered to take control of their reproductive health, they are more likely to prioritize education and career opportunities, boosting the economy and reducing poverty.

Championing universal health coverage: As governments work to achieve the vision of universal health coverage in their individual countries, national strategies must take a gender lens, placing the unique needs – and opportunities – of women and girls at the center of policies, plans and budgets.

India, for instance, runs one programme that reaches 100 million families in marginalized communities with government-funded healthcare services, which includes helping women access screenings for breast and cervical cancer. The multi-pronged approach of access-centered policymaking, while addressing cultural barriers around gynecologic cancers, has helped women feel enabled in terms of access and empowered to transform their health.

Driving innovation to create leapfrog in advances: For too long, women’s health has meant reproductive health, and their health needs have not been prioritized. What has resulted is a broad neglect of the conditions that only affect or disproportionately affect women. Just 4% of all biopharma R&D spending goes toward female-specific conditions. Of 37 total prescription drugs FDA approved in 2022, only two were for female-specific health conditions – this trend of staggeringly low approvals for solutions for women is a trend we see year after year.

However, there are green shoots of innovation in women’s health. Private sector companies like Organon are a critical part of creating a sustainable focus on innovation in women’s health. For example, over the past 18 months, Organon completed 8 business deals to acquire or license new medicines and other products in areas where there is high unmet need, such as post-partum hemorrhage and endometriosis. In creating a commercial model, Organon is helping to magnetize the space and contributing to creating a rich ecosystem in which innovation for women’s health can flourish.

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Collaboration required on a global scale

As the world grapples with converging crises, we must act swiftly, decisively and collectively to bring gender-inclusive partnerships, policy change and innovation that improve the state of women’s health, drive economic opportunity and realize the promise of the SDGs. To drive collective progress, our efforts must be both inclusive of and responsive to women’s needs—and leverage women’s voices to accelerate action. Critically, a challenge of this scale requires unprecedented collaboration across sectors – from private, public and multilateral – to achieve a healthier world for women, societies and our economies.

Coalitions that leverage these cross-sectoral perspectives, like the Forum’s flagship initiative, Women’s Health, can help create smarter investments, break down traditional silos and initiate global dialogue. In doing so, investment in women’s health should not be seen as a cost but a true investment opportunity, a critical global priority and one that will shape the future for generations to come.

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