The World Economic Forum has come and gone, and once again, the CEOs of the most powerful corporations on the planet have committed to doing better in the fight against climate change, disease, and global inequality.
We’ve seen many flavors of corporate ESG trends emerge at Davos over the decades, and this year “health equity” was front and center. However, some cynics believe that corporate efforts to achieve health equity are just adding layers of lipstick on the same pig – that ESG initiatives are designed to take eyes off the fundamental inequality of the system itself.
Despite the ubiquity and money spent on health equity, we’re failing to move the needle. Half of the world’s population still lacks access to basic health services, and according to recent reports from the UN, we’re ‘tremendously off track’ to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It’s clear that we need a different approach.
Even so, we still believe the corporate health equity agenda has the potential to translate into real impact for two reasons. First, it reflects firsthand experience. COVID-19 spared no one, and every CEO realized that collectively, we are only as strong as the weakest public health system. Second, health equity initiatives have already shown staying power. Medtronic LABS—the only health systems innovator that develops community-based, tech-enabled solutions for underserved patients, families, and communities across the world—has been experimenting to find the most impactful way to expand access to healthcare for over 15 years.
Healthcare and technology companies are leading the way in driving health equity agendas, often focused on rectifying the systemic biases that mire health systems and business models. Since COVID-19, major tech companies like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google, and even Meta have launched health equity-focused initiatives that range from large grant programs to social science research into the drivers of racial disparities in care.
But how do we ensure corporate health equity initiatives truly have an impact?
First, we need to put our own interests aside and work together. What’s striking when you look at corporate health equity initiatives is that they are all distinct. And why shouldn’t they be? They are reflections of unique corporate brands, and they exist, at least in part, for reputational value. Yet, we think ‘health equity’ presents a unique opportunity to align toward a common strategy and vision.
Fortunately, there are proven blueprints to follow. The Global Fund, for example, is a trailblazer in private sector engagement, with a range of catalytic funds that promote co-investment and collaboration. The Global Health Equity Network (GHEN), hosted by the World Economic Forum, is taking the lead in convening the private sector around shared goals with 39 organizations, including companies like Medtronic and non-profits like PATH, that have already joined GHEN and signed the Zero Gaps Pledge which provides 10 focus areas to drive progress. Building on these blueprints, we have an opportunity to unify our efforts and build a private sector-led health equity movement.
Second, we need to co-create with governments and civil society. Cross-sector partnership can be slow and messy, but it’s the best way to spur transformative change. The good news? There is no better moment to build public-private health equity partnerships than now. Some countries, like Rwanda, have a longstanding track record of forming partnerships with private-sector companies. The drone-powered logistics company, Zipline, and the telemedicine company, Babyl, both started with top-down national partnerships. The newly formed Africa CDC is encouraging others to follow Rwanda’s lead in welcoming enhanced private-sector collaboration to address health challenges. Coming out of COVID-19, health is at the top of every government agenda, and world leaders understand the imperative of private-sector collaboration.
Third, we need to measure our impact in terms of health outcomes achieved, not dollars invested. Very few global health organizations or programs measure health outcomes at all, but rather focus on activities and complicated theories of change. Some estimates suggest that as much as $3.2 trillion per year is spent on health projects that make little impact on health outcomes.
This needs to change.
Organizations like GiveWell are pioneering rigorous approaches to philanthropy focused on improving the most lives per dollar through research-backed impact measurement. Health equity initiatives can learn from GiveWell’s rigor. As we aim to build a unified private sector movement and work with governments, measuring real outcomes in health for patients must be our north star.
Is the health equity movement just another ESG flavor of the week, or could corporate commitments to health equity create a lasting positive impact for the world’s most vulnerable? Perhaps coming out of COVID-19, corporate leaders finally realize that threats to health anywhere are threats to health everywhere.
The private sector has a unique window of opportunity to make a difference in health equity – to lead on an issue and move the needle on the SDGs. If not now, then when?