Expanding access to healthcare is one of the most critical priorities of our time. According to the World Health Organization, 400 million people around the world do not have essential health services – that is more than the entire population of the United States. The situation is even more challenging in rural areas, where 7 in 10 of the world’s poor live today. This is especially true in places like sub-Saharan Africa, which has 11% of the world’s population yet 24% of the world’s burden of disease, and only 5% of the world’s health workers.
Ask anyone who has been on the ground in rural Africa, and they will tell you the devastating reality of these statistics. Over the years, I have visited Africa many times where I have seen this impact in person. Last year I traveled to Zambia, where I saw the effects that a lack of adequate healthcare and healthcare infrastructure have on people, particularly children. When I was there I had the chance to meet a young girl suffering from rheumatic heart disease (RHD). RHD is a complication of untreated streptococcal sore throat, and an illness that many parents of young children have encountered at some point.
Although completely preventable and treatable, RHD claims the lives of thousands of children each year in the developing world, where poverty is widespread and access to healthcare is limited. Sadly, despite efforts to help this child with emergency travel to India for surgery, RHD ultimately took her life. Unthinkable tragedies like this occur too often in low-income countries.
Stories like this motivate me to do more to solve this challenge. And while we do make many of our medicines available for free or at a low cost for patients in need through a variety of programs, this is only part of the equation. What is urgently needed is stronger health systems in developing countries where needs are greatest. Until fundamental issues, such as a shortage of trained professionals, weak distribution channels, and a lack of disease awareness are addressed, it will be difficult – if not impossible – to more sustainably provide access to healthcare.
All stakeholders – industry, governments, NGOs, and nonprofits – must work together on this. Last month, I attended the Fortune + TIME Global Forum in Rome, along with other leaders of global businesses and NGOs, where I chaired the working group on global health that was comprised of two dozen leaders. Together, we agreed to contribute toward the ambitious goal of providing 100 million children in the least developed countries with modern healthcare over the next several years by training more health workers, establishing more clinics and hospitals, and implementing simple sanitation solutions.
Through our work fighting RHD in Zambia, we know the importance of partnering to overcome on the ground challenges. Together with a number of partners, including the Ministries of Health and Education, Novartis launched the “Beat RHD” initiative in Zambia. The program aims to conduct research on the true prevalence of the disease, expand access to penicillin which treats the condition, as well as promote public education and awareness of RHD, its cause and symptoms. Through the program, we also work to strengthen health systems, providing trainings and refreshers for healthcare workers, as well as assisting clinics with the best approaches for diagnosing and treating the condition.
As health systems evolve in these countries, one way to improve healthcare access in rural areas is by leveraging simple, existing technologies to help drive progress. Technology has tremendous potential to disrupt the delivery of healthcare globally, particularly in areas where health professionals and infrastructure are scarce. For instance, mobile phones are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the world, including rural parts of Africa. Because stockouts are an all-too-common barrier to treatment in remote areas, we have used SMS messaging via mobile phones to manage stockouts of our malaria medicines in more than 10,000 healthcare facilities in sub-Saharan countries since 2009.
We recently expanded the program to use smartphones and tablet computers in Kaduna State, Nigeria to track real-time inventory levels of essential vaccines and antimalarial, HIV, TB and leprosy treatments. These devices also enable health workers to gather data on the incidence of maternal and infant deaths and diseases such as malaria, measles, yellow fever and cholera, and provide on-demand e-learning trainings for healthcare workers in local facilities.
As one of the world’s largest healthcare companies, we have a great opportunity to help bring positive change to areas of the world that need it. I also believe, as leaders in the global healthcare ecosystem, it is our responsibility to help. If all stakeholders can work together, we can create innovative, sustainable solutions that help ensure patients access to care for the long-term. After all, we owe it to patients like the child I met in Zambia, and the hundreds of thousands of others who need better care.
Joe Jimenez is the Chief Executive Officer of Novartis.