Good health is a prerequisite for sustainable development

BD's Gary Cohen on why his company makes health a business priority. (Photo: Shared Value Leadership Summit 2015)

Interview with Gary Cohen, Executive Vice President and President, Global Health and Development, BD

Good health yields high returns on investment – both from a human and economic perspective – because good health reduces poverty and supports economic development. With the UN’s adoption of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the link between health and sustainable development is more relevant than ever.

Acting on the magnitude of the world’s global health and development challenges requires collaboration between many actors in society, including the private sector. To shed light on the role of healthcare companies, Novo Nordisk’s TBL Quarterly has asked Gary Cohen of BD how his company is contributing to sustainable development through their businesses and who they are collaborating with to improve health.

TBL QUARTERLY: What does sustainable development mean to you?

COHEN: Sustainable development means engaging in commercial and non-commercial development practices that address and support societal needs while enabling progress and growth. Sustainable development allows companies to innovate and grow in a manner that contributes positively to society, rather than pursuing their success at the expense of society.

What role does health have to play in sustainable development?

In my view, good health is a fundamental enabler or disabler. When someone has strong health they are able to be educated, work, raise families, and be productive. When health is lacking, people become burdens to themselves, their families and societies. Good health is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

Why are the SDGs relevant for BD and how can you contribute to them?

The SDGs provide an opportunity for companies to align their priorities, plans and operations with the broader global agenda, which in turn can increase the relevance and positive impact companies can have on society. This increased relevance can contribute to long-term business success. BD is already engaged in cross-sector collaborative initiatives with governments and NGOs to address leading infectious and non-communicable diseases such as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, cancer and diabetes, and to help improve health systems in areas such as laboratory testing capacity and quality, infection control, medication error and safe immunization of children. These are all relevant to SDG number 3 (‘Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages’).

Further, our engagement in ‘Together for Girls,’ a partnership to end violence against children, is relevant to SDGs 5 (‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’) and 16 (‘Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’).

Could you mention an example of an initiative that drives your business while also creating value to society?

One large example of shared value creation in BD is our focus on improving health worker safety through use of safety-engineered ‘sharps’ devices. This strategy has spanned over 25 years, beginning in the late 1980s when BD was among the pioneers and early advocates for protecting health workers from injuries that can spread infectious diseases.

Our work in this area has been highly collaborative, involving engagement with activists, researchers, governments, professional societies and the broader medical technology industry. Safety-engineered devices contributed to substantial reductions in injuries to health workers, and also became BD’s single largest source of business growth.

What personally motivates you the most about BD’s work?

I joined BD 32 years ago and have served as an executive officer of the company for nearly 20 years. A devotion to doing good in the world is deeply embedded in BD’s culture—I like to say that at BD, you can achieve your life’s work as part of your work life.

What is needed for businesses to create greater health impacts in the future?

A big part of this is perspective; what do business leaders see as their role in society? There is no doubt that their first responsibility is to run their businesses successfully. A company must be strong to do its best work in advancing societal interests and needs – much as a person must be healthy to be fully productive. But commercial success alone is a starting point, not an endpoint.

Read this interview and more in the latest issue of Novo Nordisk’s TBL Quarterly, which focuses on the SDGs that affect global health and health care. 

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