A Healthy Future for Healthy Living?

healthyAt the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2013 there was anticipation mixed with some trepidation about the level of fortitude leaders would bring to the essential task of reducing chronic illness and promoting healthy living. Certainly, the motivation is there – 36 million lives lost every year and millions more disabled or compromised by chronic illness – but there is work to do to turn talk into action.

Despite excellent progress over the past year in drafting the Healthy Living Charter, obstacles such as short-termism, self-interest and fear of transparency have been slowing the transition to meaningful solutions across the public and private sectors and civil society.

I am pleased to report that after several intense, productive sessions on non-communicable diseases (NCDs), healthy living and wellness during the Annual Meeting, a lot of well-intentioned dialogue is turning into plans for outcome-oriented action.

Firstly, there has been more candor than ever. “Wash me, but don’t get me wet,” said one leader using a translated German saying. In other words, “let me feel good about helping address chronic illness, but don’t expect me to do anything that intrudes on my real priorities”.

The chief executive of a major company made an impassioned case against short-termism, asserting that promoting and protecting public health is not in conflict with a company’s interests. He said smart companies have already figured out that their goals must serve “people, planet and profit.”

Outcomes from the Annual Meeting sessions showed widespread agreement on some vital points:

  • We must redefine our definition of the health system well beyond the medical system to include environment, diet, activity and all factors that impact health. Consequently, any legitimate approach to promoting healthy living must include this entire ecosystem.
  • Health is definitely an economic development issue. Finance ministers should be as interested in addressing chronic illness alongside health ministers.
  • The increasing move toward universal health coverage does not guarantee universal health. We have to prevent as well as treat.
  • Effectiveness requires senior leadership from countries, cities and companies to lead the charge and to set an example because this is a cultural issue and we need a “culture of health.”

So, what can we anticipate in terms of outcome-oriented action? There is much work to do, but here are some recommended actions from the main session on Healthy Living:

  • The Charter for Healthy Living should become a set of 21st century public health principles defining society-wide conditions to be healthy.
  • A global leadership coalition should be formed (CEOs, public sector leaders, civil society) to endorse and actively campaign for the Charter or Principles. This must include leaders from all relevant sectors.
  • Emerging national prevention goals, targets and incentives should be investigated, chronicled and showcased as best practices at the country and city level.
  • We must get the narrative right that Health = Wealth; that prevention of chronic illness and promotion of healthy living is an economic advantage (one leader suggested shortening the formula to “Wellth”).
  • A major conference should be held to showcase scalable health and wellness innovation.
  • The Annual Meeting in Davos in 2014 should put Healthy Living at center stage, encouraging leaders to model behaviors through options for daily exercise, health monitoring and healthy diet choices. Emerging health systems and new technologies could be showcased.
  • Innovation should be further fostered by selecting one affordable technology and showing its widespread power to lead change. For example, equipping sample populations with social media-linked pedometers to encourage points-based tracking and comparison of physical activity may start a movement, both figuratively and literally.

Those are just some of the many impressive ideas and recommendations for action that emerged at the Annual Meeting. Work streams coordinated by the World Economic Forum will convene multi-sector groups to develop and implement the actions in the year ahead.

The leaders who developed these recommendations clearly agree with the advice from the author and philosopher Goethe: “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

This post first appeared on the World Economic Forum Blog.