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Q&A: Ann Aerts from Novartis Foundation


Pharmaceutical Executive

Dr. Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, Switzerland talks with Pharm Exec about the Novartis Foundation initiatives.

The efforts of foundations are often overlooked, despite their importance in positively impacting communities. Dr. Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, Switzerland spoke with Pharm Exec about initiatives the Novartis Foundation has to help with cardiovascular complications, hypertension, and other diseases in low- and middle-income countries.


Dr. Ann Aerts

Pharm Exec: Societies are challenged with an increasing number of hypertension patients, where prevention and education would be required. Is the Novartis Foundation doing something in that area?

Aerts: You are right. Despite vast evidence on how to treat and manage hypertension and prevent complications stemming from the condition, over 10 million people still die from hypertension every year. Low- and middle-income countries are hit especially hard facing the double burden of fighting multiple health crises, while rapid urbanization and the lack of healthy lifestyle options are further compounding this challenge.

Tackling hypertension requires innovative approaches that allow us to reimagine the way care is delivered, particularly in developing worlds where health education has historically been limited. This requires multisector collaboration to design how health services are created, organized, and managed, and how cities are planned and built.

With this in mind, last year, the Novartis Foundation launched the urban health initiative Better Hearts Better Cities to address hypertension and the underlying risk factors associated with the condition. By convening partners across a wide range of sectors, from health authorities to food suppliers, employers, schools, IT companies, and urban planners, we are working together through these partnerships to mutually complement each other’s expertise and contribute resources to the creation and implementation of solutions that improve cardiovascular health. These solutions not only include the strengthening of health services by expanding access to quality care, but also the improvement of healthy living and working conditions in cities. Better Hearts Better Cities is currently present in three cities-Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, Dakar in Senegal, and São Paulo in Brazil-and plans to cover 1 million people in its first year of implementation.

Another approach that the Novartis Foundation is taking to address hypertension is working with schoolchildren in Healthy Schools for Healthy Communities. This initiative is based in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and works with disadvantaged schools to improve the overall and cardiovascular health of schoolchildren and their teachers by implementing very simple measures and creative solutions. Besides offering children and teachers the opportunity to dance during school breaks (often the only physical exercise possible given the lack of sports infrastructure), the initiative focuses on promoting health literacy, and providing access to regular medical examinations (including the monitoring of cardiovascular risk factors) and to nutritional supplementation when necessary. We are hopeful that learnings can be used to further develop and scale interventions to more schools in the country, and potentially in other geographies as well.


PE: Is the Novartis Foundation mostly focused on low- and middle-income communities in other countries, or are there opportunities within the US for these communities as well?

Aerts: The primary aim of the Novartis Foundation is to have a transformational and sustainable impact on the health of low- income populations. We focus on addressing some of the most pressing global health challenges. To give you an idea of the range of health challenges we have helped address, these span hypertension and cardiovascular complications stemming from the condition, to the elimination of leprosy, and a range of other diseases and programs in other disease areas including, for instance, malaria. In fact, in 2017 the Novartis Foundation reached 7 million people through our programs. Our work includes direct implementation of programs on the ground, where we monitor and measure patients and population health outcomes, generating evidence we can use to translate into policy. That is how we aim to make our work sustainable at scale.

With that said, the learnings from some of our programs on effective ways to strengthen health systems, specifically in areas such as noncommunicable diseases, are undoubtedly relevant for U.S. communities and cities. We are currently working closely in collaboration with our U.S. colleagues to identify potential areas where the learnings from Better Hearts Better Cities can be transferred and applied to the U.S. context.


PE: How does the Novartis Foundation benefit the pharma industry as a whole?

Aerts: Novartis, and other pharmaceutical companies, are now looking beyond the development of medicines to improve access more broadly. We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure that where a person lives is not a barrier to accessing quality healthcare.

To achieve this, the Novartis Foundation is focused on strengthening health systems to deliver better care, and moreover, care that is adapted to the reality of life for these underserved populations. We reimagine the way healthcare is delivered, bringing healthcare closer to where people live and work, in collaboration with partners from different sectors to ensure local health providers have stronger skills and tools to ultimately improve health outcomes for their patients and communities. We aim to empower patients to become more involved in their own health, using digital technology to connect them to the right information, as well as to the support they need. Only then can the health system support a coordinated patient journey with high levels of communication and collaboration across healthcare teams.

As an original signatory to the United Nations (UN) Global Compact and as supporters of the UN Sustain- able Development Goals, we share the view that stable and reliable healthcare systems are vital for economic and social progress. Continuing to help expand access to quality healthcare is vital not only to our industry but to society as a whole.


PE: In your earlier career you worked as a Coordinator for the ICRC (International Red Cross) in Africa – How does this experience help you in today’s work with the Novartis Foundation?

Aerts: In my years working at the front-line in emergency situations, I witnessed unimaginable suffering and hardship-war, violence, and famine blighting entire populations. We did amazing work to save lives, but when you are on the ground, it is incredibly frustrating to realize that there is only so much you can do.

It was not enough to place a handful of doctors on the front-line-it is too fragmented, too piecemeal. Instead, we needed a systemic approach with better sanitation, housing, education, and hospitals. We had to think bigger.

As a qualified physician, I knew I had skills and knowledge to share. I began to think what might be possible if I shared just some of my knowledge-and if others did the same-with local people, health providers, governments, and innovators.  

This has always been my vision for the Novartis Foundation. The global health challenges today are unprecedented, each one too big to be handled by one organization alone. Bringing partners together to share knowledge and collectively build resilient, sustainable health systems that provide the care and support that people need, where and when they need it most, is the only way forward.

Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, Switzerland. Connect with her on twitter @AnnAertsNF.

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