Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bringing good things to life? GE in Africa

When I am looking for information about health in developing countries that is not available in the usual media outlets, covering stories less spectacular than the outbreak of the latest infectious threat, I have sometimes turned to Certainly in the past, you could find issues related to bioethics of regional and local concern, say nurses strikes or clean water insecurity. Turning to for the first time in awhile, and wandering over to the fancier-looking Health webpage, my eye fell on an article entitled "Our Generation Will See Healthcare in Africa on a Par With the Rest of the World." This is global bioethics click-bait.

Turns out the article is written by the President and CEO of GE Healthcare. GE, or General Electric, is one of the biggest multinational corporations in the world in terms of gross revenue and profitability. And the content of the article is basically about GE Healthcare's good works, or at least ambitious plans, in Africa. More specifically, GE Healthcare is spearheading an effort to increase access to medical diagnostics (mammograms, X-rays, ultrasound) and training local health providers to use them. The President/CEO does realize technology is not going to solve everything: "Sustainable Healthcare Solutions don't come in boxes. They come in partnerships. In understanding the root causes of a challenge. In wanting to do well while doing good."

Pardon my skepticism. Diagnosis is a good thing, but this particular effort may increase the number of diagnosed conditions for which the patients may have no access to appropriate treatment or care. At best, it is a piece in a massive and complex puzzle. The idea too about the insufficiency of technology and the need for partnerships etc. isn't exactly new either, and past similar initiatives haven't bumped up the health indicators in a favorable direction much. That is because the 'root causes of a challenge' in this case come from outside the healthcare domain itself, the old social determinants of health. Since tackling those is typically unprofitable, as well as politically sensitive, it is hard to see why GE would have a dog in that fight. And bringing healthcare 'on par with the rest of the world'? Which part? Hopefully not the part with the highest rate of personal bankruptcy due to high healthcare costs.

Furthermore, GE Healthcare is a 'premium provider' on AllAfrica. What this apparently means is that it has paid AllAfrica for the privilege of writing or commissioning glowing articles describing its African activities. GE even has its own website embedded in the website. If nothing else, this allows the attentive reader to contemplate how GE's activities in general impact on the health of Africans. The article on GE's expansion of its footprint in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria is a nice place to start. But in the end, readers will have to look elsewhere than if they want balanced and critical information on the increasing penetration of Africa by multinational corporations, particularly those who downplay their profit motives and promise nothing but good.

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