Women are the heart of the family, leaders in our businesses and drivers of the global economy. As the Liberian peace activist and Nobel Prize winner, Leymah Gbowee, puts it, “Women are the ones that bear the greatest burden. We are also the ones who nurture societies.”
Yet all too often, the particular medical needs of women and the crucial role of women’s health in society are overlooked. In many places, talking about “women’s issues” is still taboo.
Millions of mothers worldwide, for example, still do not have access to the pregnancy and childcare information they need to keep themselves and their families healthy. According to the WHO, around 830 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, like severe bleeding and infections (often after childbirth), high blood pressure during pregnancy (pre-eclampsia and eclampsia) and complications from delivery. Without greater investment in improving these outcomes, “female empowerment” becomes nothing more than an abstract slogan.
In high-income countries, the WHO estimates that virtually all women have at least four prenatal care visits, are attended by a skilled health worker during childbirth and receive postpartum care. In 2015, only 40 percent of all pregnant women in low-income countries had the recommended prenatal care visits. Poverty, lack of information, location, poor services and cultural practices are all contributing factors as to why women are not getting the face to face interactions they need. So how can we tackle this massive challenge together?
In an age of social media campaigning and movement-building, it is easy to focus on grassroots actors and organizations as the only meaningful drivers of social change. A common perception is that “bottom up” mobilization and small-scale activities alone can deliver the right results for communities.
Yet the reality is that neither “bottom up” change driven by citizens, nor “top down” delivery to passive consumers is alone enough to tackle big global challenges. You need both the initiative of grassroots action, and the resources and infrastructure of governments and large private sector organizations. Big companies with a global presence can still be - and must be - genuine stewards of “innovation for good”.
Indeed, without the accelerated environmental, social and governance (ESG) investments from blue chip companies in recent years, significant change in many areas of our lives would simply not have been possible. The key is finding the right strategies to leverage a company’s reach, capitalize on the power of its staff and in-house expertise and use its privileged position to convene effective global partnerships.
Take global health: first, citizens may be required to make changes, for example, in their diet and health, to vaccinate children and to seek out more regular care such as prenatal visits. But second, those services must also be present, accessible and affordable even in hard-to-reach circumstances. “Bottom up” change will therefore never be enough on its own.
As technology transforms the landscape of personal health management and health care delivery, the role of companies is increasingly to build platforms for citizens to stand on - reaching people wherever they are. At Johnson & Johnson, for example, we have the resources to discover, develop and deliver exactly these kinds of tools. We are focused on creating health platforms that help shift societal behavior, and nowhere is this kind of intervention more necessary than in women’s health.
Mobile technology has incredible potential to reach moms and families in the most remote corners of the world with information about their health, allowing them to make better decisions for themselves and their children. In South Africa, for example, Johnson & Johnson has partnered with the National Department of Health and the excellent African nonprofit Praekelt.org to deliver a service called MomConnect to millions of expectant mothers across the country.
The digital platform, a flagship program of the National Department of Health and formally integrated into the health system through 95 percent of clinics, sends free weekly messages via SMS or WhatsApp containing medically reviewed, culturally relevant information developed by BabyCenter and local experts. Since 2014, MomConnect has registered over 2.5 million pregnant women at their first prenatal appointment - the highest population coverage (63 percent) of any program of its kind globally. Mothers can also respond to any message with their specific questions, compliments or complaints – accessing a help desk that manages 1,200 incoming messages per day.
Providing a woman with such information can empower her to manage any health issues more independently, decreasing her dependence on face to face interactions. Yet crucially, the ultimate aim will always be to encourage her to seek help from a trained health care practitioner when necessary. Here, the digital platform should be seen as a complement to, not a replacement for, frontline delivery of care. Encouraging women to connect with local health workers via a mobile service is one thing, but it also requires skilled frontline health workers to be available at that place and time.
NurseConnect, developed as a companion service to MomConnect, speaks to this challenge by providing key support – messaging, a mobile learning platform, and a help desk - for nurses and midwives in the South African public health system. It has registered over 26,000 nurses and midwives since 2016 across more than 1,700 facilities.
And by allowing the MomConnect user to provide feedback on the services she receives at clinics and to ask questions about her pregnancy and newborn child through a government help desk, the digital platform itself works directly towards improving the quality of real world care.
Through this model of offering informative digital solutions for users while also driving greater investment in targeted health care provision - helping to train frontline health workers to meet the needs of the local population - global health actors can create delivery systems across the world that are cost efficient enough to be scalable, but bring enough face to face engagement to be life changing.
The truth is that change at this scale is only possible when corporate entities, governments and third-party organizations come together in partnership - developing and rolling out new technological solutions using existing infrastructure and joined-up financing strategies. And if we get this right, achieving bottom-up change by empowering people with better information about their health while also ensuring effective top-down delivery systems, the rewards for women’s health, and for society at large, will be enormous.
Editor's note: Follow today's International Women's Day conversation on social media with hashtag #InternationalWomensDay.
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