The future of global health

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Monday, 6 April 2015 23:43 GMT

WISH 2015: Panel on Universal Health Coverage / Credit: Lilia Carasciuc

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Following the 2015 World Innovation Summit recently held in Doha, Qatar, and in conjunction with World Health Day taking place Tuesday, April 7th, I interviewed Professor the Lord Darzi of Denham. Lord Darzi holds the Paul Hamlyn Chair of Surgery at Imperial College London, and the Institute of Cancer Research. He is Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, Vice Chair of the UK Government All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health and the Executive Chair of the World Innovation Summit for Health, Qatar Foundation. In our interview, we discussed the theme of this year’s convening, key takeaways, major challenges to global health, and much more.

Tell me a little bit about the main themes of the 2015 World Innovation for Health Summit, which took place earlier this year in February. 

The main overarching theme of the summit is to share the latest health innovations from around the globe among the world leaders, policymakers and health professionals who attended. Of course health innovation is very broad so this year’s summit focused on some of the key health challenges we are facing globally. We hosted seven forum panel discussions and published accompanying research papers on topics including dementia, diabetes, delivering affordable cancer care and the mental health and wellbeing of children. 

I’m also really proud of the partnership WISH has developed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was this partnership which enabled us to produce a report, in collaboration with Harvard University and Save the Children, highlighting the importance of integrated maternal and newborn healthcare. In 2013 more than 2.9 million newborns died due to a lack of available care – a shocking number which demonstrated why integrated care systems that use innovative approaches are desperately needed across maternal and child healthcare.

What were some of your big takeaways from the keynote presentations of Donald Berwick, Mark Bertolini, or Devi Shetty? 

All three speeches were incredibly inspiring and helped to deliver important messages about the challenges facing us all and the innovative solutions we can deliver. Donald Berwick emphasised the importance of fostering technological advancements in order to meet the major health challenges of our generation, including ageing populations, the burden of chronic illness and the increasing prevalence of diabetes. Interestingly, Mark Bertolini also talked about the role that technology can play in healthcare, and called for greater care optimization to allow people to access the services that matter to them. A major takeaway from Dr Devi Shetty’s presentation was his plea for a new approach to training doctors, in order to change the way healthcare is delivered. His vision for a virtual global university, with a cross-country curriculum and a reduced overall training period, is powerful and would deliver a pool of much-needed talent and enough resource to make a difference.

When you look at the major challenges in global health today, what strikes you as one or two that are perhaps not getting enough attention, and should be taken more seriously? 

Chronic disease management is an area that must be addressed. Long term diseases such as diabetes, cancer and dementia are increasing at an alarming rate. As many countries also have the additional challenge of an ageing population, which will only contribute to this disease burden, we must adapt our health systems to address these pressure points. 

However, we must also do more to prevent the increasing numbers of people developing lifestyle related conditions, such as obesity and Type 2 Diabetes, in the first place. The WISH diabetes report noted that up to 80 per cent of cases of Type 2 Diabetes could be prevented through lifestyle improvements. 

The issue of children’s declining mental health is also absolutely key. One in ten people under 18 has a diagnosable mental illness and half of these will go on to develop mental illness in adult life. We need to give young people meaningful support to ensure that they go on to develop into happy, productive adults.

In terms of bright spots, what are some organizations or health systems that are truly making strides in revolutionizing research, delivery or access to healthcare? 

There are examples of fantastic innovations that have led to better and improved access to healthcare. Several examples were highlighted in our Universal Health Coverage report – such as the example of improvements to healthcare for mothers and babies in Burundi. Ten years ago many new mothers were effectively ‘imprisoned’ in hospitals after undergoing caesareans because they were unable to pay their medical bills. However thanks to reforms put in place by the country’s president women and young children now have access to free healthcare and better access to medication, improving the situation dramatically.

Other examples include the ‘oncology medical homes’ pilot in the US, a one stop-shop for co-ordinated cancer care which has helped to cut health system costs and emergency department visits. In the UK, the My Care program has shown that better and more advanced planning can enable more cancer patients to live their last days at home if they want to rather being forced to stay in hospital, which is of course a higher cost care setting.

Looking ahead, what kinds of issues would you like to see tackled next year?

We’ll soon be planning for future topics and there are several trends that I would like WISH to explore. One example is precision medicine, an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention. It is a more tailored form of medicine which takes into account the variability in genes, environment and lifestyle factors among different people. Some advances using precision medicine for cancer treatments have been made but with the launch of the Precision Medicine Initiative in the US, I expect this area of medicine to grow significantly. Other areas include ‘frugal innovation’ – low cost innovations using few resources. Devi Shetty’s model of providing affordable life-saving heart surgery in some parts of India is a prime example of this smarter way of working. I would also like to explore ‘behavioural economics’ and how public policy could be more effective in encouraging a healthier population.