From rising child obesity in Mexico to the uptake of smoking in Asia-Pacific, the state of the global population's health is an urgent policy priority for governments the world over. But it is also a priority for companies operating in those markets and especially those active in the health sector.
Indeed, for Maggie Fitzpatrick, chief communications officer at health insurance company Cigna, finding out where the next big threats to health are coming from has become a key part of her company's approach to corporate philanthropy.
She explains: 'We focus on some of the big challenges that are around the world, such as childhood health and obesity. Chronic disease is on the increase in every region that we operate and governments can't combat the issue alone. But we think private sector has a big role to play and we are trying to spread the word that a lot of this is manageable.'
Fitzpatrick, who works out of the company's Connecticut headquarters, recently attended the first ever global workplace health forum in London, which was sponsored by Cigna's philanthropic arm The Cigna Foundation, of which she is currently president, as part of its 50th anniversary celebrations.
The forum was designed to highlight the contributions that employers and community organisations make towards a healthy society, and to provide a resource that allowed lessons to be shared. One hundred 'global health and well being leaders' from 29 countries, working for public, private and non-governmental organisations, were invited to the forum to identify the world's healthiest workplaces and share the most effective programmes.
'Our engagement with policymakers and customers is very important,' she explains. Among the challenges faced by companies at the forum were stubbornly high smoking rates in Austria, increasing incidence of diabetes in India and a rise in cases of hypertension in Africa. 'Some companies provide on-site health clinics that run annual health checks and vaccinations. Others promote healthy food at work and many companies implement smoking cessation programmes,' she notes. 'The London event was a chance to bring together the best of these approaches.'
Fitzpatrick is interested in what factors promote longevity around the world, citing Dan Buettner's book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer, as an example of what we can learn from taking a global approach to improving health and wellbeing.
'He tried to find those communities where there were high concentrations of centenarians, such as Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia in Italy, and there was lots of overlap,' explains Fitzpatrick. 'They often had a strong sense of community, safety, security and a spiritual aspect.'
Fitzpatrick is keen to promote Cigna's role as a company that communicates, and her appointment as its first chief communications officer in 2010 marked a sea change in Cigna's attitude. Its chief executive David Cordiani has said he hired Fitzpatrick believing that Cigna would change from a traditional insurance company to a global health services provider.
'We used to be a quiet company but that has changed. And having a chief communications officer on our leadership team is symptomatic of the fact that we have transitioned to more proactive communications,' says Fitzpatrick.
Last year, her 45 man team made history in North America when Cigna became one of the first insurance companies to target individual consumers with an integrated Go you media and branding campaign. The initiative followed the Affordable Care Act, which has called for the creation of state health insurance exchanges, which will force insurance companies to differentiate themselves in order to gain business.
Asian health challenges
Cigna, which has customers in 30 countries, including Thailand, South Korea, China, Turkey and Indonesia, is very strategically focused in Asia, where aging populations and rising obesity levels and smoking rates are starting to take their toll.
Indeed, last year the World Health Organisation predicted that if smoking levels in developing countries in Asia continue at the current rate, the number of people who will die from smoking-related lung cancer would double over the next 20 years.
The Foundation, which has contributed $220 million to charities since its creation, is underpinned by a strict business case. As Cigna's international business offers products and services to meet the needs of local and multinational companies and their employees, it makes sense to forge relationships with organisations and engage with them on the issue of health.
'Projects that apply for our support have to meet clear criteria,' explains Fitzpatrick. 'Are they having a measurable impact? Is it aligned with our values? Is it inspiring people to live a healthier life? Is it in the right geography?'
Cigna is keen on projects that address specific health challenges. When it discovered the quality of dental health in South Korea was poor, the Foundation sponsored a bus equipped with dentist chairs and X-ray machines that its staffed by dentists from the Seoul National University Dental Hospital and employee volunteers. So far 3,000 Koreans have been treated on the bus since its launch in 2010, many of whom had never been to a dentist. They receive treatment and information about tooth decay prevention and good oral hygiene.
'Whether it's corporate philanthropy, CSR or shared values, it shouldn't be a PR tactic but an authentic part of the strategy,' explains Fitzpatrick. 'I think contemporary approaches to corporate philanthropy emphasise the need for any projects to be directly aligned to your business strategy and you have to work with multiple stakeholders. There has to be a diversity of policy makers, business leader and nongovernmental organisations coming together.'
But Cigna is also keen to involve employees with its philanthropic work. It launched a volunteer time-off programme three years ago, where employees are paid for up to eight hours of time spent volunteering in their communities. To date, they have collectively devoted more than one million total hours of community service.
But Fitzpatrick recognises that, as well as discussing best workplace practices, it is necessary for Cigna to practice what it preaches. Its Shape Up Challenge saw 8,600 Cigna employees collectively shed ten tonnes and log almost 16 million minutes of physical activity, equivalent to 30 years, in just 12 months.
'We created a community (for weight loss),' explains Fitzpatrick. 'People in teams together have a much better chance of success.'
Fitzpatrick believes the last five years have made the role of the communicator more important in businesses everywhere, not just her own. 'Corporations face challenges from low trust but managements know that they need to listen to the communications function because we are the eyes and ears of a cross section of stakeholders,' she concludes.