The Private Sector: An Essential but Untapped Partner for Universal Health Coverage

By Jeff Sturchio, President & CEO, Rabin Martin

Around the world, an estimated 400 million people lack access to basic health services, and millions more are driven into poverty because of high out-of-pocket healthcare costs. For those of us who can count on health insurance or the private resources to cover gaps in coverage when unexpected personal or family health crises hit, it’s difficult to imagine the stress and hopelessness that people face when unable to help loved ones cope with either acute episodes or chronic conditions — or have to choose between paying for healthcare and paying for other necessities of daily life. Universal health coverage (UHC) strives to address this challenge, protecting people from financial hardship that can result from seeking health services. Furthermore, UHC includes improving the quality of health care and addressing health inequities that result from geographic location, economic disparities and gender.

The inclusion of UHC in the Sustainable Development Goals was a significant milestone because it marked the political commitment necessary to move the needle on UHC, a vision first articulated in the Alma Ata Declaration nearly 40 years ago. However, realizing UHC will be no small feat, and each country must chart its own course to do so. More than 100 countries already have. While countries will continue to lead this process, responding to the unique mix of social, economic, environmental and political factors that affect the health of their populations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, donors, NGOs, faith-based organizations, companies and other partners play an important role in supporting these efforts through policies, programs, research and partnerships. The public sector alone cannot achieve universal health coverage: what’s required is a “whole-of-society” approach, using all available public and private resources to create mixed health systems that can realize the promise of UHC.

Among these partners, the private sector is often overlooked as a critical collaborator in enabling mixed health systems to improve population health in sustainable ways. For the last three decades, the private sector has been increasing its contributions to improving the health of communities around the world. Aside from providing health services and creating innovative finance mechanisms, companies provide expertise, human capacity, funding, research and other resources that support mixed health systems. They enable the development, enhancement and scale-up of health programs. And the private sector can bring its deep experience in management, capacity building and research to bear to increase efficiencies, reduce duplication, leverage existing resources and improve coordination.

One notable example of how this partnership model brings complementary public and private resources together for enhanced impact are the neglected tropical diseases programs addressed through the London Declaration. The longest running of these programs — the Mectizan Donation Program sponsored by Merck & Co., Inc., to tackle river blindness — is now in its 29th year. It clearly demonstrates the power of partnerships to bring governments, civil society and the private sector together in the service of universal health coverage. Other companies have emulated this model to address other neglected tropical diseases such schistosomiasis and lymphatic filariasis. Health care companies, in partnership with regulatory bodies, NGOs, government agencies and multilateral institutions, work to enhance access to high quality medicines, vaccines and diagnostics. They also make significant investments in training local health workers and pharmacists and improving health facilities.

But the pharmaceutical industry is just one of many sectors to contribute to UHC. Food and beverage companies like Coca-Cola and Nestle, along with logistics entities such as Imperial Health Sciences, contribute to the local health infrastructure through strengthening supply chain management. Financial institutions engage in efforts to support financing mechanisms that ultimately contribute to increasing access to funds for the poor. Led by founder Michael Bloomberg, who is a champion in the fight against noncommunicable diseases, media giant Bloomberg has continuing collaborations with advocates and city officials to prevent obesity. Technology companies are teaming up with governments and NGOs on the ground to enhance communication, improve data collection, support online training and facilitate telemedicine.

This UHC Day, health advocates need to remember Goal 17, which focuses on enhancing partnerships to support the SDGS, in addition to Goal 3 on health. By doing so we can think more boldly and move faster in helping countries realize their UHC goals. We have a long way to go in achieving health for all. Let’s embrace the opportunity to work together now so that the human right to health is not compromised by accidents of geography or persistent inequalities in the distribution of health resources.