News & commentary about the global health workforce
Vital Home

HRH + Private Sector = A Happy Marriage?

Partnership with the private sector was a strong theme at the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health (HRH) in Recife, Brazil, last week. But where were our private-sector partners?

Their limited presence made me wonder: Are we really welcoming what the private sector has to offer? Or are we just looking for funding? 

The private sector is already involved in HRH and brings unique voices, assets, and ways of working that the global HRH community must embrace to stay abreast of the rapidly changing environment. Unfortunately, private-sector entities were not substantively involved in the preparations leading up to the forum and were absent from most of the formal deliberations. Johnson & Johnson was the only private-sector group to hold a side event.

To help bridge the gap between the private sector and the global HRH community, we took IntraHealth International’s innovative SwitchPoint concept on the road to Recife. SwitchPoint is a movement inspired by our annual event, which harnesses the power of unusual, creative ideas and collaborations—intersections we call switch points—to stimulate progress.

In the last session of the forum, IntraHealth gathered some of the leading private-sector innovators who are working to solve today’s health workforce challenges to share their switch point experiences. Just like governments and civil society, the private sector—itself a diverse constituency—is grappling with how to bring about transformative and sustained change in the health sector.

Our moderator, IntraHealth’s Malik Jaffer, spurred many lively conversations. Here are some of the sound-bites that most inspired me:

Partnership is like a well-tended garden.

Steve Justus of the McKinsey-supported Touch Foundation in Tanzania likened partnerships to gardens—they are organic and take on lives of their own. Gardeners trust that with proper care and feeding, their harvest will be abundant. But gardens require patience, constant attention, fertilizer, and time to thrive and give a good harvest. In our field, partnerships are not always formal institutional collaborations, but are about growing networks that allow us all to build off each other’s unique strengths over time.

It isn’t all or nothing.

Daryl Burnaby of GlaxoSmithKline shared the motivations behind their company’s 20% reinvestment strategy. GSK donates 20% of the profits from its work in developing countries and reinvests them into training frontline health workers in those same countries. The switch point for Daryl is that reinvestment in health workers pays back in stronger health systems, which then allow GSK products to reach more of the people who can benefit from them. He shared that 20% is enough to make a difference, yet not so high that it is unsustainable for a company over the long term. GSK invests in on-the-ground partners who know the local context and can deliver the training.

Profit isn’t a dirty word.

Amit Thakker of the Kenya Health Care Federation proposes a paradigm shift: Profit is a good thing. When companies make profits, they can reinvest in their companies and communities—and provide a greater tax base to support better public services. He acknowledged that not all companies are the same—unscrupulous companies exist everywhere—but smart companies throughout East Africa are engaging differently with their government counterparts and are creating more win-win partnerships that support national health goals.

Progress doesn’t have to be painfully slow.

Paurvi Bhatt of Medtronic Philanthropy is busting the myth that “corporates” bring only money to the table. Medtronic is a leading advocacy player calling for transformative action to address the burgeoning global noncommunicable-disease crisis. Medtronic, like many corporations, has global assets (i.e., local and global talent and management, communications, and marketing capacity) they want to bring to bear on global health challenges. Paurvi encourages the global community to create more adaptive and responsive health systems and workforces that are truly able to respond to noncommunicable diseases.

Global companies can act locally.

Juliana Dal Pino of Johnson & Johnson Brazil explained how companies like J&J are deepening their commitments to their key stakeholders—their patients, families, and communities—through innovation. Johnson and Johnson Brazil invests in training health workers. They are also a sponsor of the World Cup in Brazil and wanted to piggyback on this investment to do something valuable for the health of the population. A new J&J phone-based digital health scorecard game will encourage World Cup spectators to know their health score and give suggestions on what they can do to improve their health. J&J also supports a health innovations center in Brazil designed to strengthen health workers’ fluency in the latest health technologies available in their facilities.

Aid funding can unleash private capital.

James Mwanzia of IntraHealth sees aid dollars as investment capital. How’s that for creativity? Through an innovative US Agency for International Development-funded project in Kenya, he and other Kenyan leaders are unleashing private resources to expand access to high-quality education for future generations of health workers. The resources USAID has invested to establish a low-interest loan program for health students have already been tripled by other private sources in the first year of the program.

Sure, the private sector has the potential to expand funding for HRH. But it can and does offer much more. We at IntraHealth are embracing new ways of working with the private sector and encourage the entire HRH community to do so.  Do you have examples of private-sector collaborations you want to share? What is your switch point for health workers?