Sep. 20 2016

Public Health: Open for Business

Sebastian Fries aims to bridge the divide between public and private to reach big population health goals

What makes a household brand change its practices? In recent years, McDonald’s stopped using antibiotics in its chicken products; Trader Joe’s raised its minimum wage to well above federal mandates; CVS removed cigarettes from its shelves. A variety of pressure points drive change, depending on the case: changing customer demands, new scientific discoveries, social media outcry and new regulations, to name a few. Sebastian Fries, PhD, the new executive director of the Columbia Population Health Partnership (CPHP), has a vision where Mailman School expertise becomes an integral part of this equation. 

“The opportunity is significant,” says Fries. “The private sector has been viewed to be profiting at the expense of the broader society. But change is underwaysophisticated business leaders and thought leaders realize that meeting societal needs doesn’t have to lead to lower profits and a loss of competitiveness. Emboldened by powerful customer trends, more and more businesses are ready to reconnect their company’s success with societal needs. They’re our launching pad to get solutions out the door.”

That launching pad is built on what’s known in business school circles as the “shared value proposition,” the idea that integrating benefits for society into a corporation’s business practices creates increased economic benefits. It’s a new approach Fries saw firsthand before he came to the Mailman School: at Pfizer, where he worked to expand access to medicines in low-income communities within emerging markets, and at TOMS, where he led the shoe company’s Giving Strategy, which started as the simple “get a shoe, give a shoe” model and has evolved to now provide not just shoes, but eyeglasses, safe birthing kits, funding for clean water projects, and bullying prevention to people in more than 70 countries. 

Traditionally, the academy has been reluctant to wade into working with the corporate world—it’s not called an ivory tower for nothing. There’s been good reason for caution: the prior century is littered with examples of companies misusing or burying important scientific findings. But that landscape is changing—for public health academics and for the private sector. Public health insights have a higher profile than ever before, and today, both sides recognize more incentives to collaborate. 

Amidst a tough economic environment, public health’s incentive for working with companies seems simple: corporations have both the resources and the motivation to team up. The private sector can fund studies or scale-up and expand successful pilot programs to the broader public. In doing so, they can help public health’s influence grow and play a crucial role in translating science into bigger benefits for society. 

For most of its history, public health has relied on governments, foundations, or providers to spread the word about important discoveries that could help people live healthier lives. Too often, years of research are published in academic journals and left to gather dust, never making it to the people who can put new science into use. Companies, with their naturally bigger audience, can help expand the reach of key findings. 

Academic-corporate partnerships could also push businesses to change their practices, whether to help make food healthier, ensure cleaner air, or make their work environments safer, says Fries. “Public health research has significant potential to impact company strategies, to make critical changes, big or small, so their products or operations are better for everyone’s health. Let’s get started.”

In his search for potential partners, Fries often focuses on finding leaders with the characteristics that make big change possible: an open mind, long-term vision, and a passion to do something bigger. Fitting with this year’s Grand Rounds theme of Team Science, he hopes to find these qualities across the Mailman School community, too: “With those ingredients, we’ll be having a very different conversation. I’ll need it—without that the battle lines are drawn, and you’re bucketed in your territory, in siloes.” 

The rewards for working with companies are plentiful, but so are the potential risks. It can be a tricky ethical landscape to navigate, which is why the agreements with companies will have to first and foremost ensure that research is completely independent and that the results be used responsibly. 

Not every company will align perfectly with the Mailman School’s public health mission. “It’s about finding how these different worlds can overlap for the greater good,” argues Fries. “It’s never black and white, but we can find an area of common ground. If you believe that systematic change is possible then you want as many powerful actors and stakeholders around the table as possible to make it happen.”