Healthcare agency, top drugmakers spotlight growing role in public health at UN meeting

In the do-well-by-doing-good category, pharma companies and their agency partners are stepping up their public health projects in the developing world, and they're spotlighting some of those efforts at the United Nations this week.

McCann Global Health--along with several pharma companies including Merck ($MRK), Bayer and Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ)--will speak this week at a UN session for the private sector regarding its Every Woman and Every Child (EWEC) movement. The meeting will highlight the corporate partners increasingly important to the initiative.

McCann first began working on UN projects in late 2012, when it committed to in-kind and pro bono work on communications. It has since joined the EWEC effort and launched global and customizable education campaigns, the first to combat childhood diarrhea and, more recently, childhood pneumonia.

The latter effort--a joint project with UN-affiliated organizations the Clinton Health Access Initiative, UNICEF, USAID, and Abt Associates--bowed in November with multimedia kits in different languages, as well as regional and cultural variations that can be adapted to suit local needs. McCann is currently working with UNICEF on the global polio eradication effort and will share research, campaigns and business results at this week's meeting.

McCann Global Health president Andrew Schirmer

"This is not just some kind of public relations play. More and more, it is viewed as a business imperative and a part of global citizenship," said Andrew Schirmer, president of McCann Global Health. "…There is a discussion in the pharma sector saying 'what role are we playing in solving global health problems?' It's not about getting credit, but more about how do they serve underserved populations in meaningful ways?"

There are other reasons why pharma is interested in global health initiatives like Every Woman and Every Child, he said. The developing world is growing and changing quickly, and as those countries' economies develop, they will become future markets for pharma. Schirmer noted the growth success of Nigeria for example, which is now the largest economy in Africa and one of the fastest-growing in the world.

"A lot of pharma companies realize that if these are the markets of tomorrow, they need to think about what they are doing now to understand them. One of the ways to do that in healthcare is to go get involved today," Schirmer said, adding that pharma should find ways to engage in public health problems and becoming part of the solutions in developing nations.

Another driver for pharma's interest in public health is the blurring of lines between public and private healthcare, which is happening not only in the West, but around the world. Pharma has to adapt and adjust business strategies, goals and solutions to remain relevant.

A 2014 study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health looked at multinational pharma companies' corporate social responsibility efforts in public health and found that the motivation to act "can be generalized into three interrelated categories: reputational benefit, competitive advantage and philanthropic health impact." The study's authors also concluded: "CSR is of increasing importance for multinational pharmaceutical firms yet understanding of the array of CSR strategies employed and their effects is nascent."

But that doesn't mean it isn't happening. Schirmer believes that more involvement by pharma in the public healthcare sector is inevitable.

"I've had countless conversations with people in the industry over the years … and especially over the last year when it comes to pharma and public healthcare, everyone is looking for a meaningful role," he said.

- get the McCann childhood pneumonia campaign news
- read the JH study