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How can the private sector help advance health equity?

Health equity is achieved when all people – no matter who they are or where they live – can reach their full potential for health and well-being.

Health equity is achieved when all people – no matter who they are or where they live – can reach their full potential for health and well-being. Image: REUTERS/Leah Millis

Jan-Willem Scheijgrond
Vice-President; Global Head, Government and Public Affairs, Royal Philips
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  • COVID-19 has exacerbated existing health inequities worldwide – increasing rates of poor health and disease.
  • Companies can create meaningful social impact by embedding health equity into their ESG reporting.
  • Health tech companies can play a key role by driving digital transformation and delivering solutions that give more people access to quality care.

When it comes to making progress on health equity, there are many opportunities for companies across all sectors of industry to join the effort. A great first step is understanding the barriers people face (about half the world’s population can’t get the care they need) and the initiatives underway that aim to make healthcare more equitable and accessible.

What is health equity?

Health equity is achieved when all people – no matter who they are or where they live – can reach their full potential for health and well-being. But today, too many people experience poor health outcomes, which are largely preventable and unfair (health inequities). Even in countries with well-funded health systems, people in marginalized and underserved communities often cannot access the health services they need.

COVID-19 has only intensified this situation, disproportionally impacting underserved and marginalized populations, worsening existing health disparities, and forcing vulnerable people into even more precarious positions. Gaps such as higher rates of poor health and disease among certain racial and ethnic minority groups have been brought into ever sharper focus post-pandemic, prompting a global call to respond to systemic inequalities.

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Turning health equity commitments into social impact

According to McKinsey, by putting equity at the centre of public health programmes in the US, government agencies could improve health outcomes and more effectively address disparities. McKinsey suggests an approach that includes setting ambitious goals, tracking progress and working collaboratively and cross-functionally with internal and external stakeholders. Likewise, the private sector can help drive progress by:

  • Addressing health equity within a company’s workforce and supply chain.
  • Ensuring products and services support the health equity of customers.
  • Embedding health equity within the company's Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) programme and ensuring the attainment of health equity is part of the social impact strategy.

Corporate ESG programmes not only inform how companies do business, but also make sure tangible actions are in place with measures to track results. Depending on a company’s core competencies, they may focus on helping improve the health and well-being of groups that disproportionally experience health inequity, such as children, women, minorities, LGBTQIA+, displaced people and others. A company can increase impact by teaming up and joining multi-sector collaborations like:

  • The Global Health Equity Network (GHEN) Zero Health Gaps Pledge calls on CEOs across all industries to incorporate health equity into their primary strategies, operations, and financial decisions.
  • The Digital Connected Care Coalition provides a platform for companies to share ideas and build capabilities, as well as have impact through collaborative digital health transformation projects in low- and middle-income countries.
  • The UHC2030 Private Sector Constituency convenes companies across the sector and other partners, constituencies and networks to join the endeavour to achieve “Health For All”. Shared platforms provide opportunities for private companies and others to share knowledge, build competencies, and contribute to larger policy discussions.
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What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

Health tech companies as innovators and partners

For health equity to exist, people must be able to access quality care without experiencing economic, social, or other obstacles. Healthcare innovators can respond to this challenge by accelerating digital transformation and developing technologies that make care more equitable and accessible. For example, mobile solutions can offer new ways to bring critical care closer to patients. Technologies such as mobile ultrasound with AI support, remote high-risk pregnancy monitoring solutions, and mobile apps hold great promise for closing care gaps in maternal and child health.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US has the highest maternal mortality rate among high-income countries and is the only one where maternal mortality is increasing among Black women. To help address maternal health inequity, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services designed an initiative to remove healthcare access barriers such as race, ethnicity, insurance type and income. As part of the initiative, they deployed Pregnancy+, an app that provides support for Medicaid-eligible users on topics including immunizations, hearing screening, breastfeeding and other information designed to improve the health of mothers and babies.

Toward a more equitable and heathy future

Health inequities are not only unacceptable, they are also unnecessary. We know the underlying issues and have access to the technologies and interventions to support people in attaining full health.

However, the realization of health equity on an ecosystem level requires not only action, but also the willingness to work together. Making sure no one is left behind will require a collaborative and inclusive approach that also involves listening to and working closely with those bearing the brunt of existing inequities. It also means sharing and being transparent – an approach that may not always feel comfortable in a sector that highly values the protection of ideas and information.

We still have far to go. But what is needed to solve our most pressing health challenges is not more competition, but more collaboration. Every company, in every sector, has a role to play and the ability to adopt a health equity commitment. We'll get there by setting interim goals, measuring progress, and working and learning openly along with our partners and the communities we serve. The GHEN Zero Health Gaps Pledge is a good place to start.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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