A look at the local global health “industry” of Washington state

The Washington Global Health Alliance and the City of Seattle’s Office of Economic Development has published a new report describing our region’s growing global health industry (even though they shy away from calling it that, preferring words like “sector” and such).

Called the 2011 Global Health Strategic Mapping and Economic Opportunity Portfolio, the report identifies local organizations working in global health, the number of jobs, types of projects overseas and many other interesting tidbits — including business opportunities. Some key findings:

  • Respondent’s organizations have 2,503 projects and initiatives in 156 countries.
  • In Washington, 2,979 people work in global health. Outside of the state, these 59 organizations support an additional 17,275 employees.
  • Washington has particular expertise in infectious & chronic disease and developing technologies & devices.
  • Washington global health organizations surveyed collaborate with 1,574 partners, located in 111 countries across the world.

It’s a fascinating and informative report, showing the growth and increasing economic presence of organizations working on global health in the region. Much of this growth, obviously, is due to major boosts in funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to local organizations like PATH, Seattle Biomed, the UW and others.

But it should be noted that much of the talent and dedication to these causes was already here well before Bill Gates even started Microsoft, let alone got into philanthropy.

The UW’s been a global leader on AIDS vaccine work for decades, for example, and is world-renowned for its work on other infectious diseases, as well as innovations aimed at expanding access to primary care in poor countries. PATH and Seattle Biomed were launched here in the late 1970s.

This economic analysis by the Alliance, which also represents and promotes these global health organizations, could be seen as an update on a similar report done in 2007 by the UW.

Interestingly, if you compare the basic bullet points between the UW’s 2007 report and the WGHA’s 2011 report, you might conclude that the regional global health industry has shrunken. Here’s a few of the conclusions the UW reported nearly 5 years ago:

  • Nearly 3,700 jobs global health jobs and 30,000 more jobs generated by global health activities here.
  • More than 190 non-profit organizations working in global health.

Based on these two reports, it sounds like we lost about 130 organizations and hundreds if not thousands of global health-related jobs over the past five years.

That’s not true, of course.

This misleading discrepancy is caused by the difference in — and difficulty of — defining “global health” and who actually does it. I’ve written about this ad nauseum, but here’s one old post on this problem. Basically, the earlier report had a much broader (too broad, many say) definition of global health.

The authors of the 2011 report had a more focused definition. They also tend to shy away from calling global health an “industry.” Instead, it’s referred to as a sector or by some other euphemistic description.

I can’t really complain — especially since I’ve complained so much before about people calling global health an industry here, at our Town Hall event and even on the street corner. Just ask Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Alliance, about how tiresome I’ve become about the semantics here.

Still, I think we do need — in addition to a precise definition of “global health” — a new word for these kinds of activities that aren’t supposed to be primarily about jobs and growing our region’s economy. ‘Industry’ just doesn’t cut it. But ‘sector’ doesn’t either.

At the risk of sounding sappy, global health is supposed to be about helping poor people — about fighting the diseases of poverty in poor countries. It’s about our community doing what it can, which is increasingly a lot, about helping those who can’t help themselves.

So, yeah, we are doing well by doing good, as they say. But it’s not really about us.

 

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.