How Healthcare Companies Can Meet the Moment and Respect Human Rights

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September 4, 2020
  • Jenny Vaughan portrait

    Jenny Vaughan

    Managing Director, Human Rights, BSR

  • Aude Ucla

    Former Associate Director, Consumer Sectors, BSR

  • Cecile Oger portrait

    Cecile Oger

    Managing Director, People and Culture, BSR

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of people across the world, disrupted business, and thrown the global economy into recession. The pandemic has also emphasized the need for a resilient healthcare sector—one where the entire value chain is strong, innovative, and able to absorb shocks as severe as the one we are currently experiencing.

In all sectors, we are seeing the value of a human rights approach. Companies that respect the rights of their employees, customers, end users, and community members are better positioned to restart business in a way that fosters resilience by ensuring that the people involved with and affected by the business can cope more effectively in future crises. Forward-looking businesses will play a crucial role in rebuilding a global economy where the rights of all people are respected: a society where people from all walks of life have access to healthcare, as well as to the education, employment, and healthy environments that underpin good health; and a society where the collection and use of sensitive personal data contributes to public health research and innovation without compromising privacy, political participation, and rule of law.

This is even more true of companies in healthcare.

To help leaders in the healthcare industry better identify how they can protect and promote human rights, today BSR is publishing a primer on the top human rights priorities for the healthcare sector. Gathered from BSR's direct engagement with biopharmaceutical companies, this brief summarizes the most relevant, urgent, and probable human rights impacts for the healthcare sector and opportunities for positive impact.

In a world where both a return to normalcy and our ability to weather future crises depends in large part on innovation in the healthcare sector, healthcare companies, particularly those in the pharmaceutical industry, have a crucial role to play in ensuring respect for human rights throughout their own operations, supply chains, and business relationships. Core to this is the identification, prevention, and mitigation of actual and potential adverse human rights risks.

Our new primer discusses a range of risks which have become pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, including:

  • Affordability and accessibility of medicines and vaccines: The high price of medicine can bar people from accessing healthcare even in high-income countries. Companies developing, manufacturing, marketing, and distributing pharmaceutical products face increasing scrutiny of their pricing policies and their role in making medicines more accessible and affordable for all patients.
  • Privacy: The proliferation of digital health tools and systems have introduced risks associated with the sharing of patient information in the healthcare system. These risks have intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, as health and other personal data is collected in the workplace and in public, often via integration with facial recognition and other biometric technologies. This fuels concerns about security of data storage, future use and misuse of data, and the risks of empowering authoritarian government.
  • Pharmaceutical supply chains: The high degree of complexity in pharmaceutical supply chains makes it difficult to monitor suppliers’ labor standards, particularly in emerging markets where the workforce is cheaper and where health and safety regulations are not properly enforced. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified these risks as demand has spiked, while also raising the question of supply chain disruption and business continuity, as major drug manufacturers rely on a handful of countries for active pharmaceutical ingredients.

Despite these risks, healthcare companies are poised to strengthen the human rights – the physical, economic, political, and social well-being – of the people they touch in myriad ways. In addition to the development of therapies for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19 and many other diseases, healthcare companies can play a critical role in promoting patient-centered care, improving working conditions and environmental standards in their supply chains, and enabling wider access to healthcare. By directly improving the health of people across the globe, the healthcare sector can make all of us stronger, ready to face whatever tomorrow may bring.

The Healthcare primer is the latest in a series of primers on human rights priorities for different sectors, including Transport and Logistics, Extractives, and Information and Communications Technology.

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