Swiss group Novartis is one of the foremost names in the pharmaceutical sector – It was the sector’s largest group in terms of turnover in 2012 and ranked seventh most innovative global company in 2013. Rebecca Stevens, a native of Sierra Leone, is particularly passionate about healthcare issues. She spoke to Leaders League about the group's initiatives on the continent.
Leaders League. How would you describe Novartis’ Africa strategy?
Rebecca Stevens. The relationship between Africa and Novartis began in 2001 with the launch of our Malaria Program in partnership with the World Health Organization. We decided to make cost-effective malaria medicine available to the people of Africa. So, we began working with the Medicines for Malaria Venture to create an antimalarial drug, including a paediatric version that, since it came on the market, has seen over 300 million units distributed to more than 60 countries around the world.
Has Novartis set up any other programs in Africa since then?
In 2015, Novartis decided to combine all its programs under the Novartis Social Business banner. Within it, you have Novartis Access, which is a portfolio of fifteen drugs to treat, among other diseases, diabetes, some cancers and asthma. This is offered to African governments at a price of one dollar per month, per treatment. Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Cameroon and Ethiopia already benefit from it, and other countries are very interested. Nevertheless, to treat the sick, they must really understand their diseases. To this end, Novartis has created the Healthy Family program, which has been rolled out at the community level and takes the form of information sessions designed to educate people about illnesses, diagnose them and, if necessary, give them the opportunity to heal by finding the right medication in local pharmacies. For this to work, we cannot just deposit the drugs, people need to understand how they can treat themselves. This educational part is essential, and today is greatly facilitated by the digital revolution.
How have you seen digital technology make progress in the field of healthcare?
In relation to malaria, we noticed that hospitals ran out of stocks of medicine because they could not communicate quickly enough. We therefore set up a texting system between hospitals that now allows them to directly contact the supply center. Some centers also required more adult doses or child doses, so it was necessary to reallocate stock. Today, the centers communicate with each other regarding the dosage they lack. In Tanzania, a month after the system was launched, there was an 80% drop in stock-outs. This program has already produced results in Cameroon as well, and will be launched in Zambia and Nigeria. In Ghana, a telemedicine system has been set up to treat hypertension, with guidelines, consultations and remote follow-up, and includes the possibility of finding drugs locally. In Senegal, on the other hand, the government explained to us that it was still looking for partnerships to put the project in place. There is a great demand for digital programs, but one must always assess their financial sustainability. We cannot start treating patients and then leave, yet Novartis cannot stay forever. Sooner or later, African countries must be able to finance these programs themselves.
How will healthcare systems adapt to the African population explosion?
It will be necessary to use all the digital means, but also, especially, community healthcare workers, by increasing training to have people locally be able to manage the disease, once diagnosed. Healthcare will also be a means of responding to the unemployment rate afflicting Africa, especially the younger population. If they all want to succeed, we must be able to reorient them, make them understand they can make a living in the healthcare professions. This workforce has huge potential, one only has to steer it in the right direction.