More than Just Dollars: The Potential of the Private Sector to Contribute to Women’s Health

April 3, 2014

By Priya Agrawal, Executive Director, Merck for Mothers

When governments, NGOs, and UN agencies conceive of global health interventions – be they products, services, or large-scale initiatives – each of their roles are often clearly articulated and carefully defined,  based on each organization’s knowledge, expertise and available resources. But when it comes to ‘leveraging the private sector,’ this is typically reduced to a single primary role: funding.

And there’s validity in a focus on funding: many companies are able to commit significant financial resources to global health efforts, which can enable scale, a focus on results, and a risk-taking mindset that often fosters innovation. But I believe funding just scratches the surface of what the private sector can offer to global health and development – specifically women’s health – and I was pleased to hear this sentiment echoed last month at the International Women’s Day Forum, hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Business Call to Action and United Nations Office for Partnerships.

Titled “Turning Inspiration into Action: Next Steps for the Private Sector to Empower Women Globally,” this one-day conference convened leaders from a range of sectors to discuss different ways the private sector can support women’s issues from gender rights to education to health to economic empowerment. As Executive Director of Merck for Mothers, I had the privilege of speaking on a panel about private sector approaches to women’s health alongside Sharon D’Agostino, Vice President of Corporate Citizenship at Johnson & Johnson and Leith Greenslade, Vice-Chair at Office of the UN Special Envoy for Financing the Health Millennium Development Goals – and it was encouraging to hear the conversation go beyond money.

One area we touched on was technical expertise, particularly when it comes to scientific innovation. Healthcare companies have large teams and decades of experience researching and developing technologies that can be used for seemingly intractable global health problems like maternal mortality – and that’s exactly what Merck for Mothers is striving to do. Ninety-nine percent of maternal deaths occur in developing countries, so it is critical that products are effective, affordable, and easy to administer in places lacking basic infrastructure. That’s why we worked with PATH to create a Strategic Prioritization Tool that can guide investment decisions in new technologies for maternal health based on their commercial viability and ability to reach the end-user in addition to their potential for impact. Armed with this tool, Merck is exploring products to prevent and treat postpartum hemorrhage and preeclampsia – the two leading causes of maternal mortality.

Another private-sector approach that could make a difference in women’s health is customer focus. Whether it’s a patient or provider, healthcare companies like Merck must understand their customer’s needs, preferences, routines, culture and surrounding circumstances if they strive to design products and services that customers will use. Merck for Mothers has harnessed this notion in our programming. In Zambia, pregnant women in remote communities told us how difficult it can be for them to reach a health facility once they go into labor. They could stay in maternity homes near facilities, but many women agreed that these homes are rundown and often have no food or security, making it difficult to use them. In response to this, we’re exploring entrepreneurial approaches to maternity homes to help ensure that they – and the services they provide – are operationally and financially sustainable, and we will evaluate whether they succeed in increasing facility delivery for the most vulnerable women.Likewise, in India, we were troubled to learn how absent women’s voices are when it comes to their healthcare. So we’re working with a local advocacy organization and a technology company to develop a phone-based tool that enables women to learn about the care they deserve and rate their experience. We see this as a women’s empowerment tool that can also hold health providers more accountable for delivering quality care.

Finally, the private sector is known for its knowledge of supply chains and its expertise in getting products to people. Recognizing the need for this knowledge and expertise, Merck for Mothers has set out to expand access to contraception in Senegal by strengthening the supply chain for these commodities. (Currently, an estimated 222 million women in developing countries are not able to meet their needs for modern contraception, which can play an important role in reducing maternal mortality.) In partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and IntraHealth International, we’re using performance-based incentives, logistics management and forecasting and data collection. Specifically, we’re offering private suppliers financial incentives to maintain a sufficient inventory of contraceptives, ensuring that health facilities will no longer have stock-outs of these critical products that help women plan and space their pregnancies.

These are just a few examples of core competencies that the private sector can bring to women’s health, and I appreciated the opportunity to shed light on them at last month’s Forum. But this event was just the start of the conversation. It behooves the private sector to better understand the needs in global health and clearly articulate its complementary expertise, which is often a set of fundamental business skills that companies might take for granted. And as governments, NGOs and the UN continue to develop solutions in global health, I encourage them to look towards the private sector for all that it offers, which might be funding, but is often so much more.