OPINION: A new game plan for a healthier Africa

PUBLISHED: Tue, 08 Nov 2016 08:52:28 GMT

Throughout my working life I have had the opportunity to observe the pharmaceutical industry from outside and from within. I started my career as a doctor dealing with big healthcare firms and now I am the Chief Medical Officer for one of the world’s largest so I have seen things from both sides.

Over the years I have witnessed how effectively or otherwise, pharmaceutical firms meet the needs of patients around the world.  When I consider our industry’s activity in Africa specifically, it is clear to me that while some great progress has been made; we need to recognize that Africa is a huge, diverse ever changing environment.  Which is why we need new approaches to healthcare that respond to these changes and that support African nations in achieving their socio-economic as well as healthcare goals.    

Our approach also needs to recognize that there is no single African healthcare system, no typical African patient or single model of how to improve healthcare.  We need a more holistic approach to health and wellbeing.   Rather than simply providing medicines, we need to invest time and funds in healthcare ecosystems that involve a wide range of partners.

We are one of many partners in a network of healthcare professionals, academics, governmental, NGO and community organizations all coming together to keep people as healthy as possible.   All these partners need to work together as a team to find approaches that address the needs of patients.  When it comes to improving patient health, we are all in it together with the same goal to see healthy, happy people that are living more productive, fuller lives thanks to sustainable healthcare partnerships that provide support to everyone who needs it.

For companies such as GSK, our journey to address patient needs starts with the medicines we develop.  But in the same way a doctor needs to prescribe a medicine that is right for a particular patient, so we need to develop medicines that are right for some of the unique needs we see across Africa.   For example, African countries have unique requirements related to medicine formulation, pack size, affordability and the capability to be stored and handled safely in highly varied environmental conditions. These factors can be very different from country to country and medicines need to be designed and developed for all the circumstances encountered in such a diverse continent.

Which is why it is critical to accelerate support for African Medical R&D through training and education in STEM subjects along with increased investment in African laboratory and research facilities.  We also need to see more access to global innovations through open sourcing of research findings that make the latest knowledge freely available to Africa’s scientific community.  In addition, I would like to see more companies join us in not filing patents in the least developed countries; and agreeing licenses to allow the production of generic versions of certain medicines such as those on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines.

But medicines are just a part of the puzzle. We recognise the need to help develop the broader healthcare infrastructure if we are to make a difference. For example, we reinvest 20 percent of our profits in the world’s least developed countries to train healthcare workers – the doctors, community nurses and pharmacists people rely on to keep them healthy. Insufficient numbers of trained healthcare workers are a major barrier to patients accessing the right medicines and vaccines.  That is not good for anyone: for patients and their families; for companies providing medicines; for governments trying to improve the health of their populations; and for NGOs and international bodies looking to make the world a healthier place.

Having trained healthcare professionals providing the right medicines achieves nothing if economic conditions mean that people cannot afford the medicines they need.  This calls for pharmaceutical firms to use smart pricing models to ensure patients can access medicines regardless of their ability to pay. Our approach is to cap prices of patented medicines and vaccines in Africa’s least developed countries at a ceiling of 25 percent of an average European price. We also have a tiered pricing model where countries pay for medicines based on their Gross National Income per capita.  

As a leader in a sience and values led global healthcare company, my goal is to help people to do more, feel better and live longer regardless of where they live or their ability to pay. If all stakeholders who share our vision can work ever more closely together – trusting more, collaborating more and sharing more – then we will all achieve more and provide the foundation of health that Africa needs to continue its rise in the world. 

Murray Steward is the Chief Medical Officer for GSK

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