How to rethink our beliefs and embrace a modernized, comprehensive understanding of the elements in play
Human longevity has substantially increased over the last seven decades in most parts of the world. Although inequality continues to exist across and within countries, since 1950 the average global life expectancy has risen from 45 to 73 years. However, the proportion of life human beings spend in optimal health hasn’t changed at the same pace. According to the best available data about this topic, 97% of countries and territories have seen numbers of years spent in poor health increase between 1990 and 2019, even though life expectancy has improved in the same period.
Because we are experiencing longer lives than our predecessors, it means we spend more years in poor health than at any point in history. But over the last three years, the events regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have demonstrated that there is a way to achieve breakthroughs and large-scale changes when we combine resources and motive. While far from perfect, humanity’s mobilization against the coronavirus, with the development and global distribution of vaccines in less than 12 months, has happened at a speed and scale previously unseen.
It is possible to convert that experience into an overall better goal for human health, aiming at improving the quality of the years added to life. This includes:
According to the McKinsey Global Institute, humanity already has the wealth, technology, capacity, and know-how to pursue this goal. A 2020 report concluded that by applying existing and close-to-market interventions, we could eliminate about 40% of the current global disease burden by 2040.
To achieve this objective as a society, we must rethink our beliefs about health. We need to embrace a modernized understanding of health, taking into account physical, mental, social, and even spiritual health —which involves the senses of belonging and having a purpose, not necessarily requiring religious belief.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has adopted a broad definition since it was founded in 1948, considering health a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Nevertheless, most people and even healthcare professionals historically believe that “a good health” is the absence of disease.
A comprehensive, modernized understanding should recognize a variety of factors that affect health, including personal characteristics and influence of the environment. Experts on the subject agree that the health of the future must take into account such holistic approach, alongside multiple diagnostic and monitoring solutions. Medical innovations are crucial, but it is also essential to educate the general public about the importance of diet, lifestyle, genetics, and information. Behaviors and mindsets can be risk factors, so the challenge includes modifying them for the better.
We identified five key ingredients to improve one’s health and the global health economy:
Although health spending is historically considered a cost, health is one of the highest-return investments society and individuals can make. Investing in more disease prevention and health promotion also means greater investment in health-related sectors like education, nutrition, agriculture, and technologies that have the potential to improve people’s health.
What is working for smaller groups of people, such as those with broad access to preventive healthcare and a healthy lifestyle, should be scaled up to larger populations. Good practices and addressing chronic conditions like diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease can help a typical 65-year-old to be as healthy as a typical 55-year-old today. In addition, targeting infectious diseases and scaling up well known treatments should now be a priority to reduce mortality rates in every age group.
It is necessary to improve systems and establish new standards to measure a comprehensive set of health elements, collecting and analyzing more extensive, qualitative data. Measurement is a keystone to improvement, and areas such as mental and social health need to be addressed with proper data and standards.
Innovation has been a thrust for advances in a variety of health-related dimensions. From medications, medical devices and treatments, to process improvements, public policies, and business models, the impact of innovative solutions changed everything in healthcare. Neglected tropical diseases that mostly affect impoverished communities in tropical areas, such as Chagas disease, leprosy, dengue, and chikungunya, offer considerable room for innovative treatment approaches. But to innovate more quickly, we need to provide better conditions for innovation. This means creating an ecosystem of innovation by engaging not only companies and technology makers, but all stakeholders including patients, their families, health workers, policymakers, and relevant public figures.
To achieve a higher-quality life, individuals need to be empowered to understand their health and their loved ones’ health, to make healthier choices, to monitor and improve their state of health, and to make informed decisions. Healthier behaviors and mindsets are key drivers for a comprehensive, holistic understanding of health. But to have a healthy way of life, people need more than encouragement and inspiration. They need access to trusted information so they can take control of their health.
A prime example on how a modernized, comprehensive look at health works in practice is addressing the root causes of disease. Take, for example, heart disease —the leading cause of death globally, claiming an estimated 17.9 million lives each year according to the WHO. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Heart disease is 95% reversible according to leading cardiologists and medical experts, if patients are provided with information and guidance about root causes such as:
2Future is looking at new initiatives that will promote healthcare solutions in addition to daily monitoring of each patient’s important medical information. Modern healthcare must combine innovative technology with continuous medical evaluation and individual health coaching, providing state-of-the-art diagnostic information that goes beyond risk factors.
With more prevention, better data, new technologies, and improved access to health information, we can give people the resources they need to prevent and reverse a growing number of diseases. The goal is a lasting positive impact on people’s lives: more time with loved ones, more accomplishments, and more quality of life even in older ages.