World Economic Forum in Davos highlights global healthcare challenges

My latest trip to Davos, Switzerland, this month to participate in the World Economic Forum was a reminder that healthcare is truly global. We need to collaborate to tackle the most vexing problems, especially the systemic failures that lead to shorter lifespans based on the color of your skin or where you live.

It was a privilege to be part of this global incubator that drew leaders from the private and public sectors and included a special virtual address from Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a portrait of courage as the Russian war closes in on a year. The theme in Davos was “Cooperation in a Fragmented World,’’ a great way to frame the strategies leaders need to embrace to drive lasting change that will improve lives globally.

As the CEO of New Jersey’s largest health network, it’s heartening to see health equity becoming more of a global priority. Throughout the world, there’s a 14-year difference on average in life expectancy at birth between high- and low-income countries, according to the World Bank. At the most extreme, Japan and the Central African Republic have a difference in average life expectancy of more than 30 years. In the U.S. we are all too familiar with these gaps. On average, Black Americans live 3 ½ years less than white Americans.

This is why I signed the Zero Health Gaps Pledge, the world’s first, multisector health equity pledge, along with 39 other leaders from eight countries. It’s a commitment to ensure that people in all communities have access to high-quality healthcare. By also addressing nonmedical issues, we can keep people healthier. For example, at Hackensack Meridian Health, we launched a program 18 months ago that uses two separate digital platforms and electronic health records to screen patients for food and housing insecurity, transportation, mental health and addiction issues and caregiver stress. All of the information from the screening goes directly into the patient’s EHR. So far, we have made 1.7 million referrals for community services for more than 585,000 patients.

There’s also no question that global leaders in government and the private sector must commit to addressing climate change that is significantly impacting health. The World Health Organization estimates that an additional 250,000 people will die per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress between 2030 and 2050. 

The healthcare industry, with its mission to heal, can play a major role in fighting climate change. Let’s start with a paradox: U.S. hospital emergency rooms report 1.3 million visits annually to treat asthma, yet the healthcare industry is one of the biggest contributors to climate change. The industry produces about 8.5 percent of the nation’s total annual carbon emissions. This includes hospitals, health systems, pharmaceutical companies, physician offices and others.

Hackensack Meridian, an 18-hospital system, has several strategies underway to create more energy-efficient campuses, including partnering with New Jersey utility companies through the Hospital Efficiency Program, which has resulted in an investment of more than $113 million. Energy-efficient cooling and heating systems, air handling units and other major equipment have replaced antiquated systems. The efforts, started in 2011, have reduced energy consumption by 30 percent on average. Our network has also pledged to get to net-zero emissions by 2050. 

I am also encouraged that global leaders increasingly understand that we must treat mental health and addiction the same as diabetes, heart disease and cancer–as a chronic illness that deserves the full spectrum of care, highly coordinated treatment and novel therapies. There are human and economic reasons to do so, and we can make great strides by targeting this as a workplace issue.

I was fortunate to serve on a panel with leading global experts to review best practices–everything from flexible work schedules and peer support to mindfulness training. If people spend one-third of their adult lives in the workplace, why not help them address behavioral health issues while on the job? In the United States alone, 1 in 4 people struggle with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion in U.S. dollars each year driven predominantly by lost productivity, according to the WHO. Employees overwhelmingly respond favorably when their companies address these issues. And these programs are a good return on investment. For every dollar invested in addressing common mental health issues, employers receive a return of about $4 in improved health and productivity.

Connecting with leaders from around the globe provides invaluable insights to help healthcare decision-makers advance their mission: to transform healthcare and drive positive change. The trip to Davos continues to inspire, invigorate and build new connections so that together, we can keep people in all corners of the globe healthier and happier. And healthcare leaders in the U.S. must also continue to build new relationships and partnerships here at home to make communities healthier in this fragmented world.

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