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Bridging the ‘Health Wealth’ Divide


November 6, 2010

Over the next five years the Asia Pacific healthcare market is poised to grow faster than any other region, increasing an average of 10+% annually against a backdrop of recession for most developed markets. Latin America is also expecting very positive growth, driven by the penetration of private health insurance and an increase in disposable income, all of which is helping to improve the health of many.

In some respects, the emerging markets have emerged. But not completely. Despite these advances, there is still a tremendous gap in access to healthcare between Western and other markets, and even within individual countries.

Although PR and communications is by no means a remedy, it can certainly play a role in bridging this so-called ‘Health Wealth’ divide.  That’s because at the heart of good health and wellbeing is good information.  Through improved knowledge and understanding, lives can quite literally be transformed.  Here are some of the ways PR is making a positive impact:

Shining a light

Sadly, we live in a world where one part of the globe battles the health effects of obesity, while millions still suffer from malnutrition.  We are blessed with important new vaccines for cervical cancer in Western markets, while a simple tetanus vaccine is still not widely available to developing nations, despite only costing about two dollars.  Tetanus kills nearly 130,000 babies per year even though it has been preventable for 70 years.  But how many people know this?  How can they help?

The power of PR should be harnessed to shine a light on the plight of people facing health crises, across the world or even just down the street.  We have an obligation to tell the world about the needs of developing nations and the inequalities that exist, but equally PR can make a direct impact through campaigns that highlight important issues that, in turn, raise funds that can make a difference.  Effective communication campaigns can also facilitate a political climate that would lead to change.

Empower and educate

The PR industry, through our companies and clients, is already helping by expanding health education and literacy to raise awareness about diseases.   These initiatives, often supported by healthcare companies, are not empty or cynical marketing activities.

Private campaigns can help fill the gap as governments cut back on health education to fund the black holes created by the recent bail outs of the financial market.

Awareness is key.  Early diagnosis can save countless lives and therefore knowing how to identify symptoms and seek appropriate treatment is vital.  But let’s not forget about the importance that prevention messages can have on the health of nations – both rich and poor.  Avoiding smoking, improved hygiene and proper nutrition should be starting points for good health.

For example, Reckitt Benckiser supports a public awareness group, the Global Hygiene Council, and has sponsored the largest ever study to determine the burden of illness in poor communities and the impact of participatory community hygiene education.  By promoting simple hygiene measures, these educational efforts are making progress by fostering healthy habits and, in turn, reducing the spread of infectious diseases.  At the heart of this programme are robust and relevant communication and education efforts.

Beyond prevention, we can also empower people in emerging markets to take a more active role in managing their own health.   While access to physicians may be an issue in certain markets, the growing importance and availability of over-the-counter medicines is enabling people to tackle minor ailments themselves before they escalate.

Telling people about these accessible and relatively cost effective products can decrease the burden on healthcare systems that are already straining at the seams.  When patients are fortunate enough to have access to advanced healthcare, PR educational initiatives can help people find a voice and feel more comfortable discussing health issues and, in some cases, demanding better care.

Highlight progress

But it’s not just about enlightenment.  Companies are putting their money where their mouth is, with positive stories to tell.  For example, Roche has created a programme to ensure that its antiviral Tamiflu is available to governments and patients in developing economies to protect the health of the world’s poorest people against H1N1 influenza.  Part of the programme is a donation of more than 10 million packs via the World Health Organisation.

Likewise, GSK and sanofi-aventis have collectively committed to donate millions of doses of their swine flu vaccine.

Another case in point: the WHO estimates that 2 billion people are anaemic due to lack of iron and many children in developing markets are at risk of vitamin and mineral malnutrition, causing approximately 3.5 million deaths each year due to maternal and child malnutrition.

The Heinz Micronutrient Campaign makes a direct impact on health by providing vitamin and mineral supplements for millions of children in developing nations.  Only last year, leading economists stated that eliminating micronutrient deficiencies in children through these types of initiatives, can offer a better rate of return than combating global warming, disease or terrorism.

PR should communicate the positive impact that associations, individuals and companies from both the developed and emerging markets are making to the lives of millions of people.  Recognising these initiatives and spreading the good news may serve to inspire others to rise to the challenge.

Valuing healthcare

There is undoubtedly an ethical debate about who is to blame for the escalating costs of healthcare and the widening chasm between the wealthy and poor.  The answer is not going to come from demonising or penalising healthcare companies, who develop the vast majority of medical breakthroughs.  They have a right to a fair return on investment in research that governments cannot or will not undertake.

However, thanks to public dialogue and interaction, these companies are genuinely listening and being more flexible by introducing tiered pricing that distinguishes between developed and developing countries. Although not a sustainable solution, pharma companies are in some instances waiving intellectual property rights to valuable medicines in developing countries.

Treatments for HIV are one such example. This is a highly contentious issue, and therefore effective two-way communication will be essential as NGOs and corporations navigate the way forward.

PR must shift the conversation about value, from one which focuses on justifying the price of an individual product to one that encompasses the cost of not treating a disease.  We need to communicate a holistic view of ‘value’ so that good health is seen as something worth having and investing in for local communities and the world.

It is also important to demonstrate the value that medical innovation brings to the health and prosperity of nations. Communication that supports inward investment will also help cultivate home-grown medical advances so that solutions are not simply imported from the West.

For example, clinical trials in India for a new targeted therapy can give early access to cancer patients living there. Thailand is carving out a reputation as a medical hub for affordable care.  Singapore, already a developed market, has become a state-of-the-art biopharmaceutical research centre and is geographically well positioned to offer solutions that can be used worldwide, but also tailored for the region’s needs.

Interestingly, the reason to tackle diseases in developing countries goes beyond the altruistic – it is a matter of pragmatism.   In today’s world of air travel and migration, an infectious disease can leap from a small village to a major city on the other side of the globe in a matter of hours.  If goodwill doesn’t trigger attention, perhaps a healthy dose of self-preservation just might do the trick for some.

As stated at the outset, the issues surrounding the ‘Health Wealth’ divide are multifaceted and it would be naïve to think there is a silver bullet answer, let alone propose communication as a key solution.  But working in concert with private and public partnerships, communications can play its part to improve the situation, one message at a time.

Image found from http://www.healthtechviews.com/