5 ways to strengthen our health systems for the future

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Genya Dana, Acting Head, Health & Healthcare, World Economic Forum, Kelly McCain, Head, Healthcare Initiatives, World Economic Forum & Matthew Oliver, Consultant, World Economic Forum


  • Health systems around the world have been hit hard by the pandemic, with 90% of countries reporting disruptions to essential health services.
  • As we get back on track, new possibilities are emerging to address a wide range of health issues.
  • Through data and technology, along with the co-creation of health services with communities and new entrants in the health and healthcare field, we have the potential to transform healthcare for the future.

In September 2019, a group of experts working together as part of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) published a report stating that the world was grossly unprepared for a lethal respiratory pathogen pandemic like what the world faced in 1918 with influenza. The cost to the modern economy of such a pandemic, they reported, could be up to $3 trillion.

The GPMB’s estimates, it turned out, were far too conservative.

The IMF in October 2021 projected that the cost to the global economy of the COVID-19 pandemic, until 2024, would be around $12.5 trillion. The Economist described the economic impact as “incalculable”. The toll on human health is greater still.

Health systems face enormous challenges as they seek to recover from the pandemic. Efforts to eliminate HIV, TB, malaria and hepatitis have been set back decades, while 23 million children missed basic vaccines in 2020, an increase of nearly 20% on the previous year. Waiting times for diagnosis and treatment of cancer have spiralled in many parts of the world. Further out, an aging global population means that by 2050, 1 in 6 individuals will be over the age of 65, making a resilient health system all the more critical.

How can we possibly hope to deal with any one of these seemingly intractable challenges – let alone find solutions to them all? https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/2Z0vgJIoRJqBlgMBMnquNR?utm_source=generator

5 common themes for the future of healthcare

The World Economic Forum’s Health and Healthcare Platform works with stakeholders from private industry, governments, academics, civil society and patient advocates on a wide range of health issues from hepatitis and tuberculosis, to cancer and diabetes, and a number of cross-cutting initiatives. Across the breadth of these issues, we see five common themes that we believe have the potential to transform how healthcare works in the future, and ensure for stronger, more resilient health systems globally.

1. There’s a new appreciation of the importance of health.

Late last year, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), said: “The time has come for a new narrative that sees health not as a cost, but an investment that is the foundation of productive, resilient and stable economies.”

That is exactly what we have seen from our partners. On an unprecedented scale, companies want to be engaged in matters relating to health. From the C-suite down deep into supply chains, there is a recognition that health underpins wealth – and nearly everyone is keen to play a part. We’ve seen new partnerships brokered outside of the health and healthcare industry, such as DP World – a leader in global end-to-end supply chain logistics headquartered in the United Arab Emirates – partnering with UNICEF to support the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and critical immunization supplies in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

2. Improving health means supporting the local community.

The pandemic saw health services delivered in the community in an unprecedented way through the deployment of mobile testing units and pop-up vaccination centres. In the US, the YMCA partnered with CVS Health to establish vaccination sites in communities in six cities without pharmacy access to help ensure more equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. This trend will continue, making access to care easier, more local (including in workplaces) and more affordable, in addition to freeing up critical resources within health systems to manage emergent care.

In the midst of the #COVID19 pandemic, 23 million children missed out on basic vaccines through routine immunization services in 2020 - the highest number since 2009.
23 million children missed routine vaccines during 2020 Image: World Health Organization (WHO)

3. The global health workforce needs care, too.

COVID-19 exacerbated the global shortage of healthcare workers and the challenges they face. In the US alone, nearly 1 in 5 healthcare workers quit their jobs during the pandemic. With women representing 70% of the healthcare workforce, gender-based policies are needed to protect and support them. We must replace aging healthcare workforces, and care for our healthcare professionals traumatized by the pandemic. Healthcare should be reimagined based on the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic – and healthcare workers should be leading health policy work.

4. Deployment of novel technologies is critical.

A range of new technologies are starting to reach mainstream use, promising to make care more equitable and cheaper. From a collaboration by Pfizer, BioNTech and Zipline for long-range drone delivery of COVID-19 vaccines requiring ultra-cold-chain in Ghana, to the use of AI to diagnose lung conditions via X-ray, to the breakthrough use of mRNA technology and the promise it represents in fighting other challenging health conditions, exciting novel technologies can make care cheaper, more effective and more equitable.

5. A new age of diagnostics has begun.

Before the pandemic, many who worked in diagnostics felt that their contributions were undervalued. Now, everyone understands the importance of testing, with “PCRs”, “lateral flows”, “antigens” and “antibodies” becoming part of daily language. At the outset of the pandemic, only two countries in Africa could screen for coronaviruses; now, nearly all can. This carries hope for finding the “missing millions” in HIV, TB, malaria and hepatitis. There’s a new focus on genomic sequencing and the importance of sentinel surveillance. The pandemic has also shown that health data can be collected in real-time from all over the world. With more, earlier testing, we can catch health conditions sooner and get better health outcomes. Health and healthcare

How is the World Economic Forum bringing data-driven healthcare to life?

The application of “precision medicine” to save and improve lives relies on good-quality, easily-accessible data on everything from our DNA to lifestyle and environmental factors. The opposite to a one-size-fits-all healthcare system, it has vast, untapped potential to transform the treatment and prediction of rare diseases—and disease in general.

But there is no global governance framework for such data and no common data portal. This is a problem that contributes to the premature deaths of hundreds of millions of rare-disease patients worldwide.

The World Economic Forum’s Breaking Barriers to Health Data Governance initiative is focused on creating, testing and growing a framework to support effective and responsible access – across borders – to sensitive health data for the treatment and diagnosis of rare diseases.

The data will be shared via a “federated data system”: a decentralized approach that allows different institutions to access each other’s data without that data ever leaving the organization it originated from. This is done via an application programming interface and strikes a balance between simply pooling data (posing security concerns) and limiting access completely.

The project is a collaboration between entities in the UK (Genomics England), Australia (Australian Genomics Health Alliance), Canada (Genomics4RD), and the US (Intermountain Healthcare).

COVID-19 has generated an opportunity for stakeholders – from the public and private sectors, to governments, to communities – to reimagine collaboration in the pursuit of more sustainable, equitable and resilient health systems. Through more strategic use of data and technology, along with the co-creation of health services with communities and new entrants in the health and healthcare field, we have the opportunity to enable our health and healthcare systems to learn, adapt and prepare for a future that is sure to come.

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