April 25, 2014

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The Next Frontier: Transforming Healthcare in Africa

Strategic public-private partnerships are going beyond traditional philanthropy to solve Africa's health challenges and promote development.


By Joe Jimenez, CEO of Novartis

Many countries in Africa are poised to be part of the next big wave of emerging markets. Africa is currently the second-fastest growing region in the world, and new growth is being driven by continued urbanization, a rising middle-class and an abundance of natural resources.

Health Problems Challenge Development

But Africa’s fast economic expansion has brought its own set of health challenges to the continent. Today, life expectancy in Africa is 15 years less than the global average. Child and maternal death rates are alarmingly high, and millions of others suffer from preventable and treatable diseases, such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

On top of that, noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, are on the rise and projected to become the most common causes of death in Africa by 2030, according to the World Health Organization.

This dual disease burden, including both communicable and noncommunicable diseases, not only threatens the lives of Africans, but it also jeopardizes the continent’s recent economic progress. As we lay the foundation for growth in Africa, we need to think: what can we do to help millions of Africans live longer, healthier lives?

Consider the barriers to healthcare in Africa and how we can overcome them. We need to challenge the way things have been done in the past and find new and innovative methods to tackle the large-scale healthcare challenges, Novartis-Africasuch as lack of infrastructure and education.

Moving Beyond Traditional Philanthropy

In the past, companies would donate surplus product as a way to contribute to bettering the health of underserved populations – and these efforts made an impact.

But, as we’ve seen over and over again, donations are subject to the ups and downs of the marketplace, and because of this, they are not commercially-sustainable, long-term solutions to improving health in the developing world. We need a multi-faceted approach, combining commercial activity, philanthropy and sustainable business models, to transform healthcare for Africans – from middle- and upper-class individuals to the very poorest.

One way we’re doing this at Novartis is through our social ventures – sustainable commercial models that expand access by addressing large scale barriers, such as pricing and accessibility, infrastructure, distribution and education.

For example, in Zambia, Sandoz – our generics unit – is working with the Ministry of Health to scale up a countrywide system of reliable health shops to bring basic medicines to remote villagers who would otherwise have to travel long distances for treatment.

Our aim is to supply medicines in smaller packages, offered at prices that are affordable for the rising numbers of Africans who purchase healthcare out-of-pocket. We plan to open more health shops that will have the potential to reach more than 2.5 million patients over the next four years.

Improving Distribution Channels

In many African countries, deteriorating infrastructure makes the delivery of medicines to remote villages very difficult. Many patients travel long distances to health clinics only to find that the medicines they need are out of stock.

This is especially troubling for the 780 million people in sub-Saharan Africa at risk for contracting malaria. Without treatment, this common but preventable and treatable disease can cause death, especially in children and pregnant women. We need to find ways to ensure that essential medicines get to those in need, Novartis-Zambia-Sandozon time.

Technology can be a part of the solution. In the last decade, Africa has gone from a region with virtually no fixed-line telecomm infrastructure to a continent where one in six people now owns a cell phone. This leapfrogging in technology development can be utilized in the healthcare world as well. While in the West we’re using mobile phone apps to increase patient compliance and awareness, in Africa we’re using them to support the region’s healthcare distribution systems.

SMS for Life

For example, Novartis is working with the governments in four sub-Saharan countries, private sector partners such as IBM and Vodafone, and other groups to deliver the SMS for Life project.

Through SMS for Life, we leverage text messages and electronic mapping to help improve distribution and track supply of antimalarial medicines in rural areas. The system enables quick redistribution of product so that pharmacies don’t run out of critical medicines and patients don’t suffer.

One six-month pilot program, which was conducted in three districts in Tanzania, covering approximately 1.2 million people, had impressive results. Stock-outs were reduced from 79% to less than 26% in the three districts.

Building Lasting Capabilities by Educating Communities

Africa is home to one-seventh of the world’s population with one-quarter of the global disease burden, but it only has two percent of the world’s doctors. We need to fix this problem. One way we can do this is by educating the next generation of doctors and healthcare workers in Africa.

With hospitals hundreds of miles away and health clinics with only limited capabilities, many in sub-Saharan Africa depend on community health workers for their health needs. Community health workers are a part of a grassroots-level network where local people are trained to help deliver basic treatment and preventative care that addresses some of the most common diseases in the region. They administer rapid test kits for malaria and HIV and carry a supply of necessary medicines such as anti-malarial treatments. They also help keep track of disease outbreaks and overall public health.

There is overwhelming evidence that community-based interventions like these are effective in improving health outcomes in rural Africa, and the World Health Organization has recognized their contributions, supporting expansion of smsForLife2these programs throughout the region.

Novartis is partnering with the Earth Institute, the United Nations and a number of private sector actors to help scale up these networks and train and deploy one million community health workers in sub-Saharan Africa by 2015. This sort of cross-sector collaboration is an important part of our efforts to help improve health systems across Africa, because no one can solve the continent’s health issues alone.

Strategic Partnerships to Improve Health Outcomes

There are many positive signs that Africa is on the rise. We need to watch the unique and ever-evolving needs in this market, as we continue to evaluate how innovative commercial models, widely-used technologies and increased education can advance our efforts to improve health in Africa.

It will take continued dedication and a degree of risk-taking, but through strategic partnerships and with the right tools, we can do our part to help put the continent on a sustainable economic path and help millions of people live longer and healthier lives.

About the Author:

Joseph Jimenez has been Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Novartis since 2010. Mr. Jimenez set the company’s strategy to focus on science-based growth platforms, shaping Novartis into a broad healthcare company of leading businesses with global scale. In the context of a dynamic healthcare environment, Mr. Jimenez has pointed the company towards a new emphasis on patient outcomes.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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