Time for businesses to trim the fat: ours

This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Healthy living is no longer in the Style section of newspapers and magazines. It is front page news all over the world. Why? Over half of all deaths now result not from the plague or malaria but from largely preventable, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Experts estimate a loss of up to 5% of global GDP in 2030 in economic output due to premature death and disability from NCDs. Over the next few decades, life expectancy for the average American could decline by as much as five years because of obesity. And in the developing world, NCD risk factors are climbing at an alarming rate. For example, physical activity in China has declined by almost 50% over the past 20 years.

RELATED ARTICLES

Global Healthcare Private Equity Report 2012 PE's prescription for success in healthcare Healthcare 2020 Multistakeholder collaboration for healthy living: Toolkit for joint action Embracing China’s brave new pharmaceutical world

INDUSTRY EXPERTISE

Healthcare

A report the World Economic Forum and Bain launched this month illustrates the depth of the healthy living problem and provides a framework for the many solutions that already exist but need greater attention. This is an area where business has a major role to play, not just in pushing for the right policies but in reshaping their own strategies for employee as well as community wellness.

If you are in the business of making drugs, food, soft drinks, shoes or delivering medical care, this is not just a minor challenge, it’s a matter of economic survival. The public and governments are demanding change. Your business will survive if you can deliver a product that not only fills the stomach, increases physical activity or treats disease, but actually makes the consumer or patient healthier. In fact, this trend offers opportunities for every business sector to get involved.

Some industry leaders are already taking action by addressing three areas: changes in markets due to new government regulations and public pressure; investments in internal as well as external initiatives that distinguish their brand; and new opportunities to develop and accelerate demand for healthy living products and services.

Customers and regulators are demanding that businesses provide healthier products, and the market is responding. For the food and beverage industry, there is a significant need for healthy, convenient food options covering the entire price range from premium goods to low cost choices. Since 2005, General Mills has improved the nutrition profile of almost 70% of their US retail volume through initiatives like whole grain addition, and sodium and sugar reduction. Healthcare companies like Aetna or WebMD are responding to consumer requests for better access to their medical records or more information about health issues and treatment options.

Investing in internal and external healthy living initiatives is an integral part of brand differentiation. No longer can insurance companies be competitive by simply paying bills after an illness has occurred. Insurance companies see the opportunity to transform themselves into health promotion companies. Discovery, a South African-based financial services and health insurance company, pioneered a consumer-focused health insurance product, “Vitality,” which offered a new approach: paying customers for healthy behavior. Using an incentive-based scheme, Vitality makes healthy lifestyles easier by providing low-cost access to gyms and significant discounts on healthy foods, and offering rewards like discounts on holidays, flights and consumer products for practicing healthy lifestyle behaviors. An impartial evaluation showed that hospital admission rates were 7.4% lower for cardiovascular disease, 13.2% lower for cancers and 20.7% lower for endocrine and metabolic diseases for highly engaged members. The success of this program has also contributed to the ability of Discovery to attract and retain new employees.

Opportunities will differ by industry but the key to responding effectively to these investment opportunities is multistakeholder participation and action. The heart of the World Economic Forum’s Healthy Living Initiative is bringing sectors together to solve a common problem. Sometimes it will be a single company that kicks it off. Nike, a company that most famously makes shoes, understood that physical activity is declining as economies grow and develop. They knew that we are more sedentary than ever. But Nike knew it could not improve physical activity by making more shoes. So they helped to launch “Designed to Move” that involved sports associations, academic researchers and media to promote a message of movement worldwide. Nike may sell more shoes as a result of this initiative, but there will be benefits beyond their immediate market for years to come.

The need for a healthy population and workforce has never been more urgent. As a business, how well are you positioned to address these inevitable changes? If asked by your customers or employees, can you readily list your most attractive healthy living growth opportunities? Do you have a clear vision for how healthy living will shape your market and workforce two to five years down the road? Are you clear about what capabilities you need to build? Do you have a comprehensive program in place that you can evaluate? The answers to these questions will be the front page news of tomorrow.

Norbert Hueltenschmidt is a partner with Bain & Company and leads Bain’s Global Healthcare practice.