Five obstacles to a healthier world

Five obstacles to a healthier world

Our global conversation about promoting and creating sustainable health needs to go beyond the absence of disease.

  • min read


Five obstacles to a healthier world

Imagine a community in which “great health” is as important as education or social status, or where health education is as important as mathematics. In this community, well-being would be a priority that would be appreciated, pursued and rewarded.

That’s the vision of leaders at the World Economic Forum. In collaboration with the World Economic Forum and the Pan American Health Organization, Bain & Company released a comprehensive toolkit in January aimed at addressing some of the world’s most serious health problems.

Decades of health gains are now threatened by the rise of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory diseases, cancer and mental illness. These chronic conditions are the leading cause of death today and for the foreseeable future. They challenge the world’s social and economic prosperity, with the potential to cut productivity by $47 trillion over the next two decades and consume up to 5% of GDP by 2030.

To improve public health, business and government leaders will likely grapple with several worldwide trends, many of them byproducts of technological advances and economic development. Here are five:

  1. The aging population. In just 10 years, the number of people 60 and older will surpass 1 billion people—an increase of nearly 200 million people over the decade. By 2050, 22% of the world’s population will be over 60 years of age, compared with 11% today, according to the United Nations. As the population ages, countries will spend more money on addressing chronic health problems. Aging communities are also vulnerable to poverty and social exclusion.
  2. The risks of city living. More people are moving to cities worldwide. In 2050, 67% of people will live in urban settings, up from 52% in 2011, according to the UN. Shifting from rural to urban living often means relying more on passive forms of transport, increasing physical inactivity. In low- and middle-income countries, rapid urbanization also results in housing shortages and increased pollution in some cities, compromising residents’ health.
  3. Chronic risk factors that are on the rise. World leaders once focused on eliminating viral and bacterial epidemics that could strike down whole communities. While those threats remain, the most widespread health problems involve behavioral, physiological and environmental trends. In simpler terms, blood pressures are rising, diabetes is becoming more common, and obesity and sedentary lifestyles prevail in many countries.
  4. Income inequality. Poverty, especially in early childhood, affects long-term health and life expectancy, according to the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health. Poor people and disadvantaged communities often have limited access to health services, especially long-term care. They are also more exposed to material deprivation, psychosocial stress and unhealthy living conditions.
  5. Our modern lifestyle. We live in a stressed-out world where social support and family connections are harder to maintain. Stress at work has been associated with a 50% excess risk of coronary heart disease, and there is clear evidence that work-related stressors have a negative impact on both physical and mental well-being.

In the face of these and other factors, our global conversation about promoting and creating sustainable health needs to go beyond the absence of disease. Making this vision a reality requires a new way of thinking about healthcare. We need more cost-effective care for an aging and sicker population and investments in health so that we can pay for care and keep GDP growth on track.

Norbert Hueltenschmidt is a partner based in Zurich and the head of Bain’s Global Healthcare practice. He is a co-author of the World Economic Forum’s Multistakeholder Collaboration for Healthy Living: Toolkit for Joint Action.


Ready to talk?

We work with ambitious leaders who want to define the future, not hide from it. Together, we achieve extraordinary outcomes.