Five years ago, GSK made a pledge. Our chief executive – Andrew Witty – committed to reinvest 20% of our profits from developing countries back into those countries, using the funds to strengthen their healthcare systems by training frontline workers.
It was a bold move, but necessary. The World Health Organization currently estimates a global health worker shortage of around 7.2 million – with the shortage keenly felt in the world’s poorest communities. If we are to help curb needless deaths from everyday illnesses from preventable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea, we need more feet on the ground.
Yes, government has a part to play in plugging that gap. But, business – with its scale, financial firepower and intellectual capital – must step up to the plate too. Creating robust systems that enable people to access quality care without falling into hardship as a result, is a job for all of us.
At GSK, it makes sense for us to help strengthen health systems. We can bring our knowledge of discovering and making medicines, along with an understanding of supply chains. But people might ask why we reinvest 20% of our developing country profits in this endeavour. How is that sustainable in the long-term?
It’s sustainable because we’ve fully integrated this work into our developing countries and Africa unit, which is focused on improving access to GSK medicines and vaccines for patients regardless of where they live. This unit takes a long-term view on widening access and has taken innovative steps such as capping the prices of our patented medicines in least developed countries at 25% of developed world prices. This has increased volumes – meaning we have put our business on a robust footing and have more to reinvest in health worker training.
Investing in healthcare systems should – over time – improve access to quality care that helps people keep well. In turn, that helps strengthen these countries’ economic development – after all, countries can only thrive if their populations are healthy – and that creates a better environment for business too.
But we can’t strengthen health systems alone. We don’t always have the on-the-ground knowledge that is necessary to provide truly effective interventions at a community level. So we joined forces with three NGOs – Amref Health Africa, CARE International and Save the Children – providing them with funds to support health worker training. Together we currently run programmes in 34 countries from Liberia to Tanzania, Nepal and Bangladesh; the three charities have so far helped train 25,000 frontline health workers, reaching 6.5 million people.
This is making a real difference to the health and prospects of some of our most marginalised communities – and it’s made us look differently at partnership too. Inspired by the health worker training programme, we’ve taken our collaboration with Save the Children further. We are now combining our scale and expertise with their knowledge and reach to help save the lives of one million children. Initiatives include developing child-friendly medicines.
Like any partnership, these kinds of collaborations are not always straightforward. But we are greater than the sum of our parts. Bringing together different organisations unleashes the ideas and resources we need to strengthen health systems; and improve health and wellbeing. For instance, without the different perspective of Save the Children, we might not have considered turning the antiseptic present in our mouthwash product into a gel that could be used to prevent infection in newborns. Yet thanks to our partnership, we’re now developing this innovation.
Now more than ever these types of partnerships will come to the fore. As we make the final push towards the Millennium Development Goals and shape the sustainable development agenda post-2015, we must consider how to forge focused, measurable partnerships that enable people to live healthier, more productive lives.
Only by keeping people healthy, will we fulfil the new sustainable development goals. Currently there is one draft integrated goal focused on promoting health and wellbeing. But this does not exist in a vacuum – helping people live healthier lives, irrespective of geography, will help achieve other goals to end poverty; to promote sustained economic growth; and to reduce inequality.
Within GSK and across the private sector, we need to think carefully about how we support this. Being responsive, adopting flexible business models that support a country at each step of its development journey will help – as will creating thoughtful partnerships with complementary organisations. Being open about how we collaborate – and the progress we make, as well as the difficulties we encounter – will make these partnerships all the stronger.