All kinds of businesses, from those offering nice-to-have products to those that offer products that can improve or extend life, have an ethical commitment to their stakeholders. But when it comes to health, the stakes are especially high and the stakeholders, many. A business providing a novel medicine, a suffering-ending or disability-preventing device can count every human on earth as its stakeholder.
The reality is that companies in the business of health have their purpose built-in: they exist to generate health. The question their leaders need to ask themselves is not how do wedefine our purpose but rather, how do we deliver on it?
At first glance, delivering on purpose may seem an easy ask of health business executives: Make good products and bring them to market at a fair price. However, defining what is “good” and what is “fair” is not so easy: good medicines and devices created today should be en route to obsolescence, serving as therapies for now as well as starting points for further innovation. Systems that felt fair just a few years back need to be reimagined for a new, hyperconnected era.
And therein lies a health leader’s purpose dilemma: defining what is good and fair — now, and for the future, and applying that rubric in both developed paying markets and in developing regions with impoverished populaces; in their home communities and in distant ones out of sight but never fully out of mind. Navigating these natural tensions make purpose a dizzying conundrum for health executives who want to generate better and better products and need profits to be able to do so. One may think that a career in a less “essential” industry can begin to look mighty attractive.
Ironically, these constraints are liberating for health business leaders: they can live their purpose to lead health generation through a three-pronged health leadership practice I call provention:
- Proffer the best of today’s health products, services and systems to as many of the people who need them;
- Promote personal and public health citizenship across spheres of influence to empower and inspire healthy living and childrearing; and
- Progress continuously, innovating to make today’s products and systems obsolete as rapidly as possible.
More than a few times in my career, I’ve been asked by a friend or neighbor whether my clients in healthcare industries really want to generate health when that might lead to their putting themselves out of business. I try not to feel shocked and really shouldn’t be, as people who work in other industries can’t be expected to know that most of us working in health do so less as a choice and more as a calling to generate health. Nor should we expect people not immersed in generating health to see what is possible. Rather, I offer a purely pragmatic response: that those of us in the business of health are practitioners of provention: balancing the potential of immense financial gain with the much more immense opportunity to invent and provide new products, services and systems for healthier, happier, longer, and yes, more generative lives. Practicing provention isn’t easy, but nobody said being in the health business would be.