idea hub impact

Today’s economy is all about public health

idea hub logo on blue background

Traditional ways of calculating financial returns may be fundamentally flawed in the new economy. Companies for far too long have ignored the public health implications of the products and services they sell. Swift changes to our economy, culture, and political space have forced companies to find a way to adjust to a new world reality. Public health may be the fix.

The end of old assumptions

Private industry engages with universities for all sorts of reasons. A company may be attracted to a university’s portfolio of inventions developed by faculty in the course of their research. They may want customized training for their workforce, or access to students who will become the next generation of skilled employees.

Invariably, companies make economic decisions that result in increased shareholder returns. Calculating returns on these investments follows a number of tried and true analysis methods built upon the key assumption that the future world in which new products or services are launched looks remarkably similar to the world as we know it today.

Such assumptions have been proven wrong in the past as the result disruptions in technology. The brick and mortar retail industry was disrupted by the emergence of Amazon and other online retailers with sophisticated logistics technology. Financial analysts working at sophisticated brick and mortar retailers were doing spatial analyses and developing advanced models of foot traffic right up to the time when those things did not matter. Their models were built assuming the retail world would continue to operate by same rules in the future. In epidemiology terms, they were using the wrong counterfactual, that is, the wrong comparison condition.

When the public health impacts of business are ignored

The public health profession has long been aware of the false counterfactual analyses that underpin some business decisions. We have carefully studied the health impacts of environmental pollutants, the sale of unregulated substances, the lack of affordable housing, and structural and cultural racism. Financial analyses that stop at the boundaries of the company without consideration of public health costs are flawed.

While companies may profit from such decisions, the true costs of public health impacts of myopic financial analyses have long been socialized – that is, picked up by taxpayers. Companies benefited from this system for decades until the delicate balance of forces that have supported the system was disrupted by human and environmental disasters on a scale that can no longer be ignored.

COVID-19 laid bare that disruptions to individual businesses and to the economy as a whole are fundamentally public health problems. An economy cannot function if consumers cannot transact with business due to health, environmental, or social catastrophes. Technology is no longer the sole economic disrupter. Now human health and capacity is the critical factor that may determine the success or failure of business.

When public health directly impacts business

Imagine a national food service company that comes to the realization that customers are not coming back to eat and drink until they are convinced their health is not at risk when dining. Suddenly the company must consider local, state, and federal safety guidelines, employee training, store reconfiguration, signage, and messaging that will convince the public that it is safe to use their services. Without attention to these public health matters, the economy stagnates and business suffers.

Consider a life sciences company that is feverishly (sorry, couldn’t resist) working on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus. The vaccine will have limited impact on controlling the pandemic if the public does not trust the science underpinning vaccination and refuses to take the vaccine. While the company has millions of dollars invested in laboratories building long-chain molecules and hundreds of skilled scientists, it doesn’t have much experience in social psychology. Yet, without this public health knowledge and skill, the product may fail.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need for public health expertise and investment, and has highlighted the economic cost of underinvesting in such skills, knowledge, and systems. Yet, it is not the only public health disaster with enormous economic impact.

  • Most of the west coast of the United States is on fire, destroying homes, businesses, and vast resources
  • The Gulf Coast is being pounded by increasingly powerful storms
  • Drought, famine, and disease are causing immense suffering, driving human migration on an extraordinary scale

Private companies need public health skills and knowledge to understand how they will succeed in the very different world that is emerging.

Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) is leading the world in adapting to this new reality with specialized skills, training programs, and original research that companies can use to adapt, re-focus, and succeed. BUSPH has created idea hub, an innovation center that helps companies employ public health skills and knowledge to create the right analytic framework for assessing investments in this new world reality. Whether it is planning, program implementation and evaluation, communications, or operations, BUSPH offers a menu of public health skills and knowledge available to companies as they plan for their new realities.

You can see the kind of work idea hub is undertaking using public health concepts to tackle new economic challenges on our Success Stories page. Give us a call to learn more about how your company can thrive in this complex new world.

Dr. Craig S. Ross serves as Executive Director of idea hub at Boston University School of Public Health and holds a faculty position in the Epidemiology Department. Dr. Ross conducts research at the intersection of commerce and public health, with a particular focus on the influence of commercially-promoted products on the health of vulnerable populations including children, adolescents, women, and immigrants. 

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