In spite of the spectacular healthcare advances the world has seen in recent decades and increasing evidence that gender equality is not only an ethical necessity, but a decisive component of economic and social development, disparities in women’s health persist. At the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, diverse stakeholders discussed the economics of women’s health and what needs to be done to bridge the gap and shape the future of women’s health. Here are the key takeaways.
There is no single investment beyond investing in the health, education and agency of girls and women that has a better economic and social payoff
Mark Suzman, CEO, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, gender equality could raise global GDP by as much as USD 28 trillion, with women’s health being a key factor in achieving that equality. Moreover, the non-profit organization Women’s Health Access Matters (WHAM) estimates that for every USD 300 million invested in women’s health research, there would be an economic return of USD 13 billion. Supporting the view that bolstering women’s health is an investment in economic and social development, speakers at the Economics of Women’s Health session agreed: women’s health has benefits that surpass the health of the individual.
“We know there is no single investment beyond investing in the health, education and agency of girls and women that has a better economic and social payoff,” said the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s CEO, Mark Suzman.
“When you invest in the health of a woman, you invest in the health of the community,” added Smriti Zubin Irani, India’s minister of women and child development.
Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) agreed there is a financial case for improving women’s health equity, particularly with respect to family planning: “We see a return on investment of almost 10 dollars to every 1 dollar of investment [spent on family planning], so the monetary case can be made.”
I don’t think it’s about loosening the purse strings but about using what is in the purse mindfully
Smriti Zubin Irani, minister of women and child development, India
The need for government engagement and how that engagement can change pre-conceived ideas about women’s health is an important element for building women’ health equity, according to Irani. To demonstrate this, she shared several examples of India’s progress on this front, such as the programme that reaches 100 million families in marginalized communities with government-funded healthcare services, including breast and cervical cancer screening. She also spoke of India’s initiative to help women in distress that led to the creation of over 700 emergency centres.
The minister explained the long-standing belief in India that issues such as breast cancer were not to be spoken of publicly. Government programs that have brought these issues into the public eye have contributed to changing that mentality, she said. However, Irani warned, government funds must be used wisely. “I don’t think it’s about loosening the purse strings but about using what is in the purse mindfully,” she said.
Investing in Innovation
Of the 37 products that were approved by the FDA last year only 3 were essentially targeting those conditions unique to women
Kevin Ali, CEO, Organon
Speaking for the private sector and specifically for the biopharmaceutical industry, Organon’s CEO Kevin Ali said, “investment is the key,” and went on to say that with just 4 percent of all biopharma R&D spending going toward female-specific conditions. not enough of the industry’s investments are directed to areas such as maternal care, reproductive health and fertility. “Of the 37 products that were approved by the FDA last year only 3 were essentially targeting those conditions unique to women,” he claimed.
Organon’s decision to focus heavily on women’s health, Ali argued, was a sound commercial decision, not just the desire to support a good cause. In Ali’s view, in order to generate more investment “the industry needs to see that [women’s health] is a viable commercial enterprise” and the more returns on investment the pharma industry sees, the more it will want to invest in the area. “Any time we think of women’s health as some kind of corporate social responsibility [plan] it will go up and down but if it is a viable commercial enterprise then it will be there for the long term.”
Further enforcing its concentration on innovation in women’s health, over the past 18 months Organon has completed 8 business deals for new medicines and products in areas where there is a high unmet need, such as post-partum hemorrhage and endometriosis.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also attempting to fill some of the gaps in private R&D investment, according to Suzman, by focusing on research in women’s health areas private companies are not interested in.
Beyond government and private investments, there are access issues involved in women’s health as well as widespread disparity across the world. According to one study, if all women in low- and middle-income countries had access to contraceptives, unintended pregnancy would drop by 68 percent globally.
“There are still 300 million women who want to access family planning and are knocking on the door to the clinic and nobody is there, so [we need to look] at universal healthcare as one of the keynote examples of sustainable development,” said Kanem. She also mentioned that in many cases, the basic primary care lacking in so many regions could also have an effect on women’s health.
Medicines are still too expensive for many, but Irani mentioned the Indian government’s push to make many medicines more affordable, including 40 products for women-centric health issues. “When women are enabled in terms of access and healthcare support there is not a single healthcare need that they will not address themselves,” she said.
According to Suzman, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is looking to boost access through distribution and pricing initiatives, working with companies to support and prove the viability of their investments in low- and middle-income countries.