In January of this year, Gary Cohen became Acting CEO of GBCHealth and CEO of the MDG Health Alliance. He also serves as one of the great business champions for global health through his role as Executive Vice President of BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company).
In this month's GBCHealth Insights newsletter, Cohen describes the experiences that motivated him to become more deeply involved in global health and reflects on the continued need for business to remain committed to tackling global health challenges.
Members and staff who work with GBCHealth have a unique privilege. We are able to utilize the skills, expertise and professional competencies that we developed as leaders in the private or nonprofit sector to help address some of the world’s most important and challenging global health needs. I call this achieving our life’s work as part of our work life. Whether we ended up in this place deliberately, or by going down an unplanned path, this privilege is something we share. Increasingly, it is clear that our work in global health not only supports people in need, it also enhances the sustainability, relevance and global competitiveness of the enterprises we are responsible for.
My own journey down the path of global health leadership was an outcome of a series of experiences with a number of organizations, including the original ‘GBC.’ In December 2003, I traveled with a delegation of the world’s foremost health leaders to four countries in sub-Saharan Africa. This delegation was led by Tommy Thompson, then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, then CEO of the GBC and a dear friend to so many of us.
This trip was organized to provide deep insight on the impact of the HIV & AIDS pandemic. It was exceptionally well planned. The delegation gained first-hand insight at every level of AIDS care, from hospitals to labs to clinics and right into people’s homes in rural villages. It literally changed the course of my professional career and, in many ways, my life. The experiences from this trip also fundamentally impacted BD’s strategy in addressing health needs in developing countries, leading us to formally establish a company Global Health function shortly thereafter.
I’ve traveled to over 65 countries, 11 of these in sub-Saharan Africa, and many others in resource-limited settings. I have visited every type of health facility you can imagine. I have comforted babies and young children who contracted HIV from the simple act of being born, and supported the people and organizations that care for them. You cannot have these experiences and remain unchanged by them. And you certainly cannot turn your back. Having witnessed the depth of unmet health needs on the front lines, it is very natural to want to use your professional and personal efforts to help address these needs.
These experiences also led me to work on human rights issues that contribute to continued HIV spread, by founding Together for Girls, a partnership that focuses on violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls.
What I could not have anticipated at that time was the full relevance of these efforts to BD as a company. As a result of our interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, we gained new skills and established a broad network of trusted relationships. The know-how we gained through these experiences, particularly in cross-sector collaboration with governments, NGOs and international agencies, became a basis of our business strategy in emerging markets such as China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. These countries are making substantial investments in their health systems to expand access to a larger portion of their populations. Today, emerging markets contribute a majority of BD’s growth.
Lastly, all the hard work landed me more work, when I accepted two additional leadership positions in addition to my ‘day job’ at BD! I am particularly privileged to be able to serve as acting CEO of GBCHealth and CEO of the MDG Health Alliance. For companies that seek to engage in addressing the world’s most fundamental health problems, there is no better place to focus than on the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs expire at the end of 2015, and there is much more progress that still needs to be made towards achieving specific, measurable goals in child and maternal health, and in substantially expanding prevention, diagnosis and treatment of HIV & AIDS, TB and Malaria. GBCHealth and the MDG Health Alliance are gateways for companies to engage in achieving the MDGs. I look forward to working closely with member organizations towards achieving these essential goals. And be sure to attend the GBCHealth Annual Conference in May, because we will be doing a ‘deep dive’ into company engagement in MDG attainment at this year’s conference.