In September 2015, UN member states pledged their support and commitment to ending the HIV AIDS epidemic by 2030. The Joint Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) acknowledged that the world has “bent the trajectory of the epidemic,” but called for drastic improvements in health service delivery to meet the goal. Those improvements are desperately needed. More than 33 million people are still living with AIDS. Most weren’t diagnosed early, and many haven’t received treatment.
The question is, what role should business play? How do we truly share this responsibility across our sectors?
We believe that single donations and one-off partnerships aren’t the answer. Ultimately, health issues are systemic, and if business wants to contribute effectively to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic, crafting an approach that keeps systemic effects in mind is the best course of action.
Benefits for the Company—and the Community
The benefits of corporations supporting health care aren’t simply altruistic. In regions of high incidence of HIV/AIDS, for example, recent academic research has demonstrated that providing workplace anti-retroviral therapy (ART) has an economic benefit for companies, as it reduces healthcare costs, absenteeism, and staff turnover.
We’ve experienced these benefits at our own organization. Tackling HIV/AIDS is a material issue for Anglo American, given our significant footprint as a mining company in South Africa. And so we introduced the world’s largest voluntary private-sector testing, treatment, and counseling program for HIV and AIDS back in 2002. That move was a leap of faith at the time, as a program of this scale was unprecedented, but it has since become the keystone to our approach to health care. And last year, we tested and counseled nearly 110,000 employees and contractors in Southern Africa for HIV. Eighty six percent of the full-time workforce participated in testing. This gave us the intelligence we need to allocate resources for our people, and ensured them early diagnosis of HIV infection and timely access to care. Health may not be our core business, but the safety and well-being of our employees is at the heart of what we do.
The Importance of Data
The ability to capture and manage data using information systems has proven critical to delivering this complex program. Earlier this year, the Harvard Business School argued that integrated medical data is now the primary goal of health care reform. But there is a lot of debate about who should take the lead on these data systems—hospitals, companies, some other entity?
Our decision to lead our own charge has proven right for us. We introduced an electronic health record (EHR) program called the HealthSource in 2007. The program can track people’s health information in real time, confidentially, through mobile health clinics. Employees were concerned, at first, about the prospect of their employer gathering large volumes of private employee health-related information, however they now strongly back the scheme.
A Lasting Commitment
Maintaining the continuity of our healthcare offerings across an evolving workforce has been a considerable challenge—particularly during the five-month strike at our platinum operations in South Africa in 2014. Thousands of certificates of fitness (a minimum standard of fitness for performing work at a mine) expired and hundreds of employees on chronic medication for TB and HIV/AIDS defaulted on treatment, even though we continued to offer it for free to those striking, and our platinum business guaranteed payment of medical insurance and provided access to in-house medical services.
But we believe that it is vital for businesses to provide care services, even in difficult times. Indeed, it is perhaps the most efficient way for a business to give back to its community. According to a study carried out by KPMG for South African resource company, Exxaro, for every $1 invested in community health programs, the community gets an estimated $5 back in benefits.
Partnering to Achieve Systemic Change
We also believe that partnering is critical. GlaxoSmithKline, for instance, has been ranked at the top of the Access to Medicines Index every year, largely on the strength of its partnerships with Barclays, Vodafone, and non-governmental players in Africa. We continue to engage with the leaders in the health area—such as GlaxoSmithKline—as we look to build our own large- and small-scale strategic partnerships.
In South Africa, we’re trying to build a body of knowledge of national and international best practice on workplace wellness through the South African Business Coalition on Health and AIDS (SABCOHA). Fellow members such as Standard Bank Group, General Motors SA, and Sasol Limited offer similar employee testing programs. Together we are working to shape healthier communities.
The Journey Ahead
Collectively we must scale up efforts to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic—and improve health systems as a whole. And the private sector should not back away from participating; we play an important part in a coordinated global response.