As we start 2021, government and health organizations continue to grapple with both the needs of those affected by COVID-19 and the plans for vaccinations all over the world. We were all shocked that 2020 was a such a catastrophic year in terms of the toll on human lives and economic progress—yet the experts were warning us about a pandemic for years.
On 18 September 2019, CNN reported the rising risk of a global pandemic citing the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board which is under the charter of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank. The dangers were clear and they warned that the world was not prepared. Back in 2017, the WHO called for world leaders to take action along with the US Center for Disease Control as they cited the global risk of local outbreaks spreading globally. Even earlier in 2011, the WHO warned of the potential risk and called for action with a guide that focused on a Pandemic Preparedness Framework. With all these and other warnings, how was the world not prepared by 2020? Why were business and human capital leaders not involved and advocating for pandemic preparedness?
Many view public health as a governmental responsibility, but let’s consider the role of business leaders related to health. After all, if we rely on humans as employees, customers, suppliers, and contractors, it does seem that we are all involved in the business of health in some way. When a business sets up operations in a new country, the leaders are likely to make sure that the needed resources such as power supply, communications connectivity, supplier networks, port access, and infrastructure are in place. Negotiations with local government may involve tax incentives, job creation, regulatory approvals, and other financial issues. Seldom do we find business leaders asking about the development and care of one of the most significant resources: Human Capital. At the same time, business leaders carry strong influence on government actions and serve as a significant force in the national human capital agenda.
Employee health and wellness have long been a common agenda for human capital leaders, but only recently has population health become an issue within the scope of business leaders. The CEO Council on Health and Innovation described how companies might improve the wellness of individuals, improve the health of communities, and improve health care systems in a report published in 2014. Prior to the pandemic, several global businesses were starting to take a more holistic perspective on public health in some countries. Recent studies in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice highlight how businesses are now taking new initiatives to address community health. I will highlight five new trends that are emerging as part of the 2021 business leader agenda:
- Reviewing metrics on health behaviors - taking the time to understand the metrics associated with human health can serve as an important first step for business leaders. These metrics can include healthy lifestyle such as diet and exercise as well as behaviors related to health risks such as smoking and transportation safety. In some locations, this may include access to adequate hygiene and drinking water to avoid the strain on public health systems. Reviewing the current situation and risks with public health can be regular part of business risk planning and business continuity provisions.
- Collaborating across sectors – this can include innovation and ideas related to health systems, providers, and non-profits that support the sector. As the technology sector takes more interest in healthcare, we may see new levels of awareness and new perspectives on health. This was evidenced by the recent collaboration by Apple in Singapore to provide financial incentives for citizens to use the health applications on the Apple Watch. Proactive health monitoring can have long-term benefits in public health.
- Advocating for policy changes – when there is need for changes in either society health behaviors or with the healthcare systems, business leaders can serve as powerful advocates in the local communities. Of course, the economic development can play a key factor as shown by health system metrics. Some countries (Japan and S. Korea) have an average of 12+ hospital beds per 1000 people, while others (India and Brazil) have less than 2 beds per 1000 people. Following the pandemic, business leaders will have an increased level of awareness of the impact of health and may be in a strong position to affect change.
- Promoting city or country-wide health initiatives – the review of health policy and practices could often benefit from a business perspective. Business leaders and their organizations can be a powerful force for change by promoting new initiatives, supporting shifts in community behavior, or advocating for collective actions. In countries facing significant impact due to aging populations, businesses are working together to help develop new solutions and support new community initiatives. It would be great to see more collective action supported by businesses.
- Providing support to non-profits in healthcare – to make direct impact, sometimes businesses can give of their resources, whether in the form of financial or in-kind support. We often see successful businesses and business leaders providing strong support to non-profits or taking an active role with solutions. For example, Tata Trusts, Ronald McDonald House Charities, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others. Regardless of business size, it would be great to see more business leaders taking an active role—especially related to healthcare.
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- 10 Global leaders on what they learned from the pandemic
As we start the new year, let’s take the lessons from the pandemic and think differently about the business of health. Our global experience in 2020 highlighted the interdependencies between government policies, health care systems, and business risks. While business leaders have been active in supporting community activities and engaging in corporate social responsibility, the focus on community health has not typically been included. Over the last year we have all learned that we are in the business of health in some way.
The CEO and business leader agenda for 2021 will likely be focused on recovery and defining a new normal following the impact of COVID-19. Let’s make sure this new agenda includes a focus on the business of public health so we are prepared for what happens next. With our increasingly connected global economy and human interactions, we are all in the business of health.
Read more such stories from the February 2021 issue of our e-magazine on 'Shifting Paradigms in Performance Management'