Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a devastating toll on global health and global economies. It has made it clear how systemic inequalities affect health access and health outcomes. In the United States, morbidity and mortality have been particularly high among communities of color, with Latinx and Black Americans more than twice as likely to be hospitalized with the virus and nearly twice as likely to die.
Globally, the impact of COVID-19 and the distribution of vaccines are similarly skewed. In these early days of 2022, nearly 70% of people in high-income countries have been vaccinated, compared to just over 12% in low-income countries. This highlights the well-worn patterns of inequality, with the harshest effects of the pandemic falling on the most vulnerable communities where access to healthcare is the most limited. This global pandemic painfully demonstrates the gaps in health access that exist worldwide.
While developing vaccines in record time was an impressive scientific feat, this phase of the pandemic demands a different kind of solution. Distributing vaccines, ending the pandemic, and resuming non-COVID care will require solutions that cut across disciplines and international boundaries, navigating global complexities and inequalities.
How to Create Inclusive Health Solutions Through Cross-Sector Collaboration
The World Health Organization (WHO) is shining a light on unequal healthcare access and outcomes, calling on global leaders to work together to address the issues of poverty and marginalization at the root of the problem.
COVID-19 has spotlighted huge inequities in global health systems. But it’s also hinted at the power and potential of cross-sector partnerships to fix what’s broken. We believe that companies, in partnership with governments, foundations, and NGOs, have a key role to play in creating more effective, more sustainable, more equitable global health solutions—now and in the wake of COVID-19.
Here are five tips for creating inclusive health solutions through cross-sector collaboration.
1. Build Relationships and Trust Across the Local Health Ecosystem
Get to work mapping the local health ecosystem. Who are the players—patients, clinics, the local private sector, foundations, universities, local government agencies, and international donors and businesses—who will interact with your planned health intervention? Build partnerships and relationships locally to increase your understanding of the system and the ultimate relevance of your solution.
2. Design Health Systems and Solutions with End-Users at the Table
A key step to more equitable health systems? Engage patients and local health actors early in problem definition and solution design. The voices of patients and practitioners should shape solution design and how those solutions are built into local health systems and existing health ecosystems.
3. Have Local Innovators in the Driver’s Seat
Case in point: Ghanaian social entrepreneur Gregory Rockson co-founded mPharma to address critical vulnerabilities in Africa’s pharmaceutical supply chain—helping patients access high-quality medicines when they need them, at significantly less cost. mPharma has vision and a keen understanding of the local landscape—and that vision is backed by strong partnerships, including with major drug manufacturers such as Novartis, Bayer, and Pfizer.
4. Tap Digital Health Strategically to Expand Health Access
COVID-19 has accelerated the rise of digital health—with new digital solutions helping an ever-growing number of patients worldwide access health information and health services via their mobile phones. While the global digital divide remains a major barrier, we’ve seen that digital health can be a powerful tool for empowering patients, improving health outcomes, and creating more equitable health systems worldwide. However, digital health innovations—like most solutions to complex problems—require thoughtful, context-driven design and strong partner networks to ensure equitable access.
5. Embrace Shared-Value Collaboration and Sustainable Business Models
In the past, too many cross-sector health initiatives have missed the opportunity to engage companies as true, shared-value partners. They’ve sought to leverage private sector R&D, supply chains, and capital; yet, this support is difficult, or even impossible, for companies to sustain if the partnership is not backed by a sustainable business model and/or premised on aligned interests and shared value. Want more sustainable, more effective collaboration? Start by understanding the motivations, interests, and constraints of your partner. Then, work together to co-create an initiative that delivers core value for all involved.
Moving Forward: Harnessing Cross-Sector Collaboration for More Equitable Health Systems
COVID-19 has made it quite clear, in the U.S., and globally, that significant work remains to create equitable health systems. Yet, we’ve also witnessed the amazing strides we can make when we combine private-sector ingenuity and reach with the networks, expertise, and resources of the public sector and civil society. Cross-sector collaboration—incorporating our tips above—can be a vital part of the solution we need.
We look forward to continuing the conversation with companies, governments, foundations, and NGOs about how to innovate with impact and build strong, mutually beneficial cross-sector partnerships to advance health equity and access in emerging markets worldwide.