The 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show’s Digital Health Summit featured a keynote speaker from an unlikely company: Ford Motor’s Gary Strumolo. At the event, Strumolo, a manager of Ford’s research and innovation arm, described what he called the “strong business case for Ford to explore opportunities in health and wellness technology.” Given how much time people spend in cars, Ford is developing technologies that connect drivers to important health and wellness-related services while driving.

Ford is not the only company that recognizes the business opportunity in addressing health and wellness. Pepsi, which is reducing package size and the sodium content of its products, is also integrating health into its sustainability-certification program for suppliers. AT&T is expanding broadband access to improve remote access to monitoring and diagnoses, and the company is raising awareness within the general public about the dangers of texting while driving.

These and many other companies have developed health and wellness initiatives that extend beyond employees to target the broader population, demonstrating the diverse ways companies can influence health and wellness across the value chain. BSR recently published research that explores how companies can strengthen health and wellness, beyond the traditional role that the human resources function has played with employees. Our research recognizes that governments alone cannot solve the problem, and that industry has tremendous influence over employees, local communities, customers, business partners that provide critical supplies and services, and the general public.

Shifting Values: There’s More to Health than Healthcare

Recent activities and reforms in the United States and around the world have raised new discussions about how government, corporate, and community leaders and individuals understand the ingredients to achieving good health. In the past, we prioritized treatment and recovery, which, for business, meant investments in basic healthcare services for employees and investments aimed at reducing the negative health impacts from company operations or product use.

Now, more people recognize the importance of wellness and prevention—particularly efforts that promote and monitor health, reduce the need for medical care, and offer early interventions. This focus has opened the opportunity to consider a broader set of environmental, social, economic, behavioral, technological, and cultural factors that influence health and wellness. According to the World Resources Institute, the natural and built environment, education level, access to clean water and food, and something as simple as social trust and community connectedness can improve happiness, increase personal security, and reduce illness and disease.

Given these shifting values, companies have the opportunity to create systemic change by not only addressing health and wellness challenges directly through their products, services, operations, and business relationships, but also by addressing the wider ecosystem of social and environmental factors that affect population health.

How Can CSR Help?

CSR has played an important role in developing policies, standards, practices, and partnerships that make business a powerful force in addressing complex challenges. Yet to date, the CSR approach has not been widely applied to population health—the health and wellness of the world’s people, as well as the burdens that the escalating incidence of disease are placing on healthcare systems and economies globally.

Over the years, CSR strategies have evolved from taking a defensive tack to serving a more strategic role. Today, CSR is being harnessed to create new, systemic solutions that address the root causes of society’s biggest challenges.

In this context, the issue of population health can be considered the next frontier of CSR, given the ability of CSR practitioners to view issues and solutions as interconnected parts of a larger system. As this Fast Co. Exist article describes, health and wellness should not be solely the domain of human resources, but should be considered a responsibility and an opportunity for other business functions.

Our research revealed four success factors for CSR teams to lead business health and wellness initiatives:

  1. Reframe health and wellness as a broader stakeholder and value chain issue, and ensure that the company’s CSR agenda reflects that shift. New priorities and business opportunities may arise as a company develops a more holistic understanding of how health and wellness is linked to other important social and environmental challenges, as well as business challenges. 
  2. View company stakeholders as key partners in addressing the larger, systemic challenge of population health. Engage with internal and external stakeholders to identify and pilot new opportunities and partnerships to strengthen corporate engagement on health and wellness across the value chain.
  3. Use key performance indicators (KPIs) and report publicly on progress. Identify KPIs and goals that aim to measure and describe the company’s health and wellness efforts and impacts (including KPIs for groups that have received less emphasis in the past, such as suppliers, local communities, and the general public) in a full, transparent way. 
  4. Establish a cross-functional health network that uses resources across the company to improve health outcomes. This internal health committee can identify and address the company’s key health and wellness gaps and opportunities across the value chain, and it can help promote and integrate a wellness and prevention agenda into the broader CSR or corporate agenda.

A New Business Coalition to Address Population Health

As with other multifaceted, systemic issues, there is an opportunity for companies to hasten progress and drive stronger impacts if they work together. Toward this end, BSR is forming the Business Coalition for Population Health, which will seek to understand and promote the role of business in improving health and wellness. It will also aim to determine specific capabilities, assets, and resources that companies can share to improve health outcomes globally.

Read BSR’s new report, “A New CSR Frontier: Business and Population Health” here.To learn more about this collaborative initiative, please contact BSR at BSR members can also join a webinar on Wednesday, February 5, 11 a.m.-noon EDT, to learn more about the report and the Business Coalition for Population Health.