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Health equity: Your health outlook depends on where you live - but the private sector could change that

The World Economic Forum is committed to advancing health equity through its Global Health Equity Network, focused on building public-private sector coalitions to advance health equity.

The World Economic Forum is committed to advancing health equity through its Global Health Equity Network, focused on building public-private sector coalitions to advance health equity. Image: Photo by Francisco Venâncio on Unsplash

Bechara Choucair
Senior Vice-President and Chief Health Officer, Kaiser Permanente
Sandro Galea
Dean and Robert A. Knox Professor, Boston University School of Public Health
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Global Health

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Health inequities — gaps between the health of different groups — still characterize global health.
  • It is impossible to build a healthier future without addressing the gaps that hold us back.
  • The World Economic Forum is committed to advancing health equity through its Global Health Equity Network, focused on building public-private sector coalitions to advance health equity.

In many ways, the world is healthier than ever before. The rate of extreme poverty is falling, standards of living are rising and overall life expectancy has significantly improved. This progress is not the full story, however. Health inequities — gaps between the health of different groups — have long characterized global health. The persistence of these inequities reflects an urgent need to close the health gaps that threaten our progress on health.

It is impossible to build a healthier future without addressing the gaps that hold us back. We believe that with the right strategies, partnerships and resources, it is possible to achieve zero health gaps. By this, we mean a world where no one is excluded from living a long, healthy life, where all have the opportunity to flourish and thrive and where no one by the lottery of their place of birth is consigned to living a less healthy life.

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Why do health inequities exist?

To get there, we first must ask: why do health inequities exist? Fundamentally, inequities in health reflect inequities in resources. Health is generated by material assets, such as food, housing, safe neighbourhoods, clean air and water, income and personal wealth. When these resources are abundant, they create a context where health can thrive. When they are lacking, health suffers.

So, what are the most significant factors in generating access to the material conditions that support health? Certainly, the public sector plays a key role. Assets, such as education, environmental protection, public health and safe neighbourhoods, all depend on a robust public sector infrastructure. Civil society and academia also have a valuable contribution to make, by mobilising collective action around building a healthier world and by generating the knowledge base that supports such efforts. But that is only part of the story.

The resources that support health are also shaped by the private sector. It is the private sector that makes so many of the products that are necessary for health, from food to clothes to homes. For many, the private sector also provides paychecks and economic growth, generating the income that is central to our ability to live healthy lives.

Public health must work with the private sector

Public health working without the private sector cannot fully move the needle on broadening access to these resources. If corporate influence is aligned with the interests of health equity, it can dramatically scale up our capacity to promote health globally. Where the reach of public policy can be constrained by national borders and the complexities of domestic politics, corporate policy can act nimbly, innovate on the fly and onboard new approaches in pursuit of health equity.

If a fast-food chain commits to embracing healthier ingredients or an advertising company pledges not to work for companies that sell unhealthy products or a multinational bank says it will adopt more equitable lending policies for families with less money, such choices go where public health currently cannot, placing equity at the heart of the market.

Investing in health equity is fundamentally a moral imperative, but it is also smart business. In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on incorporating stakeholder capitalism metrics into private-sector decisions. This data reflects the broader externalities of corporate policy and how it intersects with the societal conditions that shape health.

As the impact of corporate policy on health becomes better understood, the private sector will likely continue to face pressure from investors, consumers and regulators to embrace policies that support health equity. The better the private sector engages with this demand, the better it can align its bottom line with supporting the common good, towards building a healthier world for all.

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Health is more than healthcare

Health is a product for which there is limitless demand. Historically, the market has responded to this demand by providing drugs and medical technologies. But health is more than healthcare. Addressing health inequities can help expand the private sector’s imagination about the range of goods and services it can apply to meet our collective need for health.

Housing instability, for example, has long undermined health for many, but it could be addressed through new investments in sustainable housing. Incorporating health equity into product design could mean making goods available to segments of the population that might not have been able to access them. It is important to remember that the populations most affected by health inequities are consumers too. Closing health gaps can open new markets for the private sector.

The pursuit of health equity can also be a boon for the long-term sustainability of corporations. A companywide commitment to closing health gaps could help attract talent by creating demand for the chance to be part of an organization that embraces a mission-driven agenda. Mitigating health inequities can make for a more effective workforce. A healthier world is one where all can work productively to support themselves, their families and their communities. By helping to create such a world, the private sector can build a future in which ever-more people are able to fully utilize their talents in rewarding careers. Working on health equity also builds morale and contributes to a more diverse workforce, which strengthens a company’s agility and reach.

The 'Zero Health Gaps' Pledge

Over the past several years, we have been working as part of the World Economic Forum Global Health Equity Network to build public-private sector coalitions to advance health equity. Towards this goal, in consultation with stakeholders in civil society, academia and business, we have created the Zero Health Gaps Pledge. Signatories commit to maximising health equity impact in key domains of health equity activation: across private sector organizations, in the goods and services they offer, in the wider local, national and global community and in surrounding ecosystems. We see the pledge as a step in the right direction towards a private sector guided by a vision of participation in the pursuit of health equity. By committing itself to advance health equity, the World Economic Forum is helping to support a healthy private sector and a healthy public.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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