1999: the year The Matrix was released, Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France, and the euro was introduced as a common currency.

For the pharmaceutical industry too, 1999 seems very “last century.” It was the year that Pfizer acquired Warner Lambert; the year after, Astra AB merged with Zeneca, and in the following year, GlaxoWellcome merged with SmithKline Beecham.

1999 was also the year that BSR launched its Healthcare Working Group (HCWG). Serving as a forum for companies to discuss societal issues faced by the healthcare sector, the early members included Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoWellcome, and Pfizer, all of whom came together with a primary focus on environment, health, and safety.
 

This year, we are delighted to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of this landmark collaboration for the healthcare sector.


On our anniversary, the HCWG is taking a moment to look at what we—and the healthcare industry as a whole—have achieved. At the same time, we’re also looking to the future, as major shifts, from the climate crisis to artificial intelligence, are already reshaping the healthcare sector on a global scale. Amid these changes, we remain convinced that collaboration is vital to address the challenges and to leverage the opportunities these shifts will bring.

 

Over the past 20 years, the healthcare industry has made significant progress on many issues around good corporate practice and social impact. In 1999, members of the HCWG may have found it hard to imagine that the next 15 years would see the industry’s reputation shaken by corruption, a systemic and global challenge estimated to cost the industry up to six percent of its total revenues, and that this would drive the sector to evolve its approach to ethics from a rules-based culture of compliance to a culture of business integrity and values.

Another thing that they may have found surprising in 1999 would be the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which, released in 2011, articulate companies’ corporate responsibility with respect to human rights. They probably would have been even more skeptical if told that the principles would fundamentally change their own industry’s views and understanding of their responsibility in terms of human rights. 

And at the time the HCWG was founded, members may not have anticipated the full significance of the landmark court case in which several antiretroviral manufacturers sued the South African government—this legal case ultimately presaged fundamental changes and formidable progress on access to healthcare. Yet a few years later, HCWG members convened and engaged key stakeholders to shape what became BSR’s Guiding Principles on Access to Healthcare (GPAH)—a set of industry-wide principles and approaches that recognize the multifaceted aspects of access through the importance of five core areas: collaboration, research and development, availability of healthcare services, health systems resources, and human rights. The GPAH were signed by the CEOs of 13 major global healthcare companies, which helped to spur action on this critical topic.

While great progress has been made on access to healthcare, this remains an ongoing challenge and requires continued action.

Today, while great progress has been made on access to healthcare, this remains an ongoing challenge and requires continued action. However, as we look to the next 20 years, it may no longer be the most significant challenge for healthcare companies.

Climate change is a prime example: It will have major impacts on health globally and will thus affect the healthcare industry as well. Climate change will dramatically increase the already rapidly expanding occurrences of noncommunicable diseases and disorders like respiratory diseases, heart disease, depression, and mental disorders. Equally, rising temperatures will bring changes in the distribution and burden of vector-borne diseases (such as malaria, Zika, and dengue fever) and water-borne infectious disease. Meanwhile, water—a key resource for all pharmaceutical companies—will become increasingly scarce and precious.

For healthcare companies, this means thinking hard and acting quickly to build resilience to the coming global impacts of climate change on health. This might mean analyzing production capacity or investing in research and development for the kinds of new drugs that may be required, and overall leveraging their assets, products, services, and innovation to provide solutions that reduce climate-related burdens on health.

Similarly, the healthcare sector at large must tackle antimicrobial resistance (AMR). There are approximately 700,000 AMR-related deaths every year, but the challenge is growing exponentially: One estimate suggests that deaths could increase to 10 million per year by 2050 if AMR is left unaddressed. This is a global challenge that requires collective understanding and solutions. Whether or not healthcare companies have antibiotics in their portfolio or research and development, they are and will be affected by growing and uncontrolled AMR.

As tech companies move into healthcare, new competition is set to drastically disrupt the industry.

A third example is the rise of disruptive technologies, which promise both exciting solutions and challenges. As tech companies move into healthcare, new competition is set to drastically disrupt the industry. Moreover, the growth and use of artificial intelligence (AI) in treatment plans, connected health, and patient monitoring may positively influence standards of healthcare. However, when AI is deployed in healthcare, risks arise in the areas of privacy, informed consent, or even discrimination.

These examples have something in common: They spread across the healthcare sector. They are not isolated topics for individual companies, and they cannot possibly be solved by any one company alone.

The HCWG exists as a forum of experts and peers, working together to share the challenges of today, anticipate the trends of tomorrow, discuss best practices, and co-create solutions. We’re proud to count many of the largest pharmaceutical and healthcare companies as our members: They bring unparalleled knowledge, reach, and influence to address the major trends that impact the world.

Working with our members, the HCWG recently developed a new strategy that sets out its vision to improve health globally through a sustainable and resilient healthcare sector—for the next twenty years and beyond. If you would like to be a part of this, benefit from working with your peers, and continue to be at the forefront on collective action, please reach out to us.