Read the Conversation

EF: What are the current priorities that you have for South Africa?  

RO: Approximately five years ago, we implemented a targeted African strategy to enhance medication access across the continent. In my opinion, we have achieved remarkable results and we take great pride in our work, particularly in South Africa. 

To establish sustainable and equitable healthcare, long-term collaboration with governments and healthcare providers is crucial. South Africa currently faces healthcare inequalities, but there are ambitious aspirations to accomplish more, and it is a remarkable goal to strive for. Over the next decade, we are considering our role in partnering to strengthen the healthcare system, improve patient flow, expand treatment options, and ensure timely interventions for patients in need. The potential for making a significant impact and effecting positive change is immense. This aspect is just one of the many captivating elements of working here. 

EF: Public and private collaborations are crucial for promoting investments in high-quality healthcare. How can the relationship between public and private healthcare in South Africa be strengthened? 

RO: Cooperation is paramount in the healthcare industry as no single party can achieve a meaningful impact alone. The key to rapidly improving healthcare lies in the synergy between the public and private sectors. I will provide a few current examples to illustrate our collaborative efforts, which can serve as starting points for further initiatives. 

Our collaboration with the National Department of Health and the Lung Institute at the University of Cape Town to address multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR TB) screening: TB is a significant concern in South Africa, with sporadic outbreaks. Early detection and timely treatment are crucial to controlling the spread of the disease. To improve accessibility for screening services, we established a mobile clinic that can travel to communities and conduct tests on-site. Through this initiative, we have screened approximately 25,000 to 30,000 patients, primarily in the Klipfontein and Mitchells Plain districts, with plans for expansion. This mobile clinic, developed by the Lung Institute, enables immediate testing and treatment initiation, catching undiagnosed cases early and preventing further escalation. 

South Africa is the third leading country with new cases and deaths related to Cancer on the African continent. There is evidently a year on year increase in the burden of Cancer and growing mortality related to all forms of Cancer, particularly Breast, Cervical and basal cell carcinoma. 

Novartis and other industry partners are collaborating with the National Institute for Communicable Disease (NICD) under which Cancer is reviewed, as well as the National Cancer Registry (NCR) to report on more accurate actual Cancer statistics in the country. This partnership has created a platform for stakeholders, thought leaders and experts from across the country to seek solutions, that will allow for more meaningful and credible Data- Surveillance, giving rise to more informed policy and resource allocation and application. 

A workshop planned for the 24th and 25th of August, sponsored by the Trade Association IPASA with Novartis leading and serving on the Steer committee for the Forum will go a long way in kickstarting a multistakeholder solutions-based approach. 

These examples demonstrate how public-private collaboration can effectively address healthcare challenges. It showcases the potential of integrating private sector innovation with the unmet needs of the public sector, leading to the development of effective care pathways. While mobile screening services may not be the ultimate solution, it highlights the iterative nature of finding innovative approaches that can be adapted to different regions and measured for impact. 

Successful public-private collaborations require a focus on execution and implementation rather than endless policy debates. Real-world examples play a crucial role in identifying patient journey challenges and finding effective solutions. These collaborations allow for the continuous refinement of best practices, enabling progress toward our shared destination. 

EF: You mentioned the work you are doing with regard to breast cancer. What other therapeutic fields are you focusing on in the South African region? 

RO: Empowering women is a global priority, and South Africa is no exception. The government is dedicated to advancing women's empowerment, including their health. South Africa faces a serious challenge with cancer, especially breast cancer, as it ranks third in Africa for new cases and cancer-related deaths. Given the devastating impact of breast cancer on families, the economy, and society, it's evident that women's health, particularly breast cancer, garners genuine interest. 

Addressing this concern is one of our main objectives. We focus our efforts on the intersection of our expertise, the unmet needs of the population, and the systemic or governmental requirements. Breast cancer and cardiovascular disease are our top priority areas, given the significant burden they impose on the country. In recent years and for the foreseeable future, oncology and cardiometabolic sectors have received heightened attention from us as the burden of disease in these areas continues to grow. 

EF:  What is the impact of your operations in South Africa? 

RO: In South Africa, our operations directly generate approximately 430 job opportunities, and notably, close to 3000 indirect jobs are created. These indirect jobs include highly skilled positions like biochemists and pharmacists with advanced degrees who are trained to manage supply chains, conduct clinical trials, and introduce cutting-edge scientific technologies for patient care. 

Our role involves the challenging task of ensuring that medications reach the patients who need them, and we attract a talented pool of individuals to contribute to this mission. We prioritize talent development and continue to build capability in our team in South Africa to tackle new challenges: 

Currently, we are utilizing 64 innovative compounds to treat around 1.7 million people in South Africa. Understanding the distinct outcomes and health implications of the public and private sectors, we have conducted nearly 40 clinical trials in both settings. These trials require substantial investments and extensive training in healthcare facilities. By conducting trials in areas with significant unmet needs, we provide access to groundbreaking innovations in critical healthcare domains. 

Thanks to our efforts, around 140 patients in South Africa currently have access to novel Novartis compounds that they otherwise wouldn't have as they are absolutely new. These medications represent advanced technology that significantly improves their treatment options. We continuously strive to contribute to strengthening the economy, and our social impact reports provide specific examples of the quantifiable benefits we bring.  

EF: How do you attract investment into South Africa from a multinational corporation like Novartis? 

RO: The agility of our South African team sets them apart from other teams worldwide. The team excels at translating Novartis’ global goals into local, concrete programs due to their deep understanding of patients, communities, and the healthcare system. South Africans are known for their strength, passion, and entrepreneurial spirit. Our team has a unique ability to identify solutions amidst challenges and never give up. This mindset allows us to approach situations from different angles and share our experiences, making a significant impact compared to other one of other nations. 

This distinctive quality has garnered attention and increased investment in our region. We are now seen as a testing ground for innovative concepts and methods. While it may not attract the same level of investment as research and development, it has helped us gain recognition beyond our size and scope. 

EF: What three pieces of advice would you give a young African woman who wants to pursue a career path similar to yours? 

RO: One valuable piece of advice I received early in my career was to cultivate curiosity. During your first ten years of employment, avoid limiting yourself to a specific path. Instead, actively seek out challenging tasks and unfamiliar situations. As you transition between entry-level positions, you will develop transferable skills and gain valuable insights into your abilities. By exploring different roles and discovering what truly resonates with you, you can embark on a career path that is both thrilling and personally fulfilling. 

During these formative years, prioritize curiosity over concerns about money or hierarchical positions. Keep seeking opportunities that are completely distinct from your previous experiences. This approach allows you to broaden your skills and perspectives. Being part of a multinational company offers the advantage of exploring diverse areas within the organization, such as manufacturing, governance, marketing, and sales. Although I started in R&D, I emphasized pursuing diverse experiences rather than fixating on status during the early stages of my career. This breadth of experience will ultimately support your success when you find a path that deeply engages you. 

EF: What achievements would you like to celebrate at the end of the year?  

RO: I would celebrate the impact we made through the power of collaborating with various stakeholders and knowing there will be a ripple effect. While roles may change and colleagues move on, the screening programs we establish, targeted investments in specific disease areas, collaborative partnerships, and skill-training initiatives all have the potential to make a lasting difference over the next decade or two. Even though I may never meet the patients who benefit or be recognized by them, their lives will be improved as a result. 

Discovering a deeper meaning in your work can serve as a powerful motivator, ensuring that every day is a fulfilling one. What I particularly admire about places like South Africa is the collective willingness to work together despite the challenges every nation faces. Patient advocacy organizations, self-help networks, and community support initiatives all contribute to this collaborative spirit. People are eager to roll up their sleeves and create change, and with the involvement of additional participants, we can swiftly establish and sustain impactful projects. It's truly remarkable to be part of such a sector.  

EF: Is there any final message you would like to give our audience with regard to the healthcare sector in Africa?  

RO: Working in healthcare right now in South Africa is exciting. We are at the threshold of a National Health Insurance (NHI) that aims to finally bring equity to an inequitable healthcare system. We have access to data and digital technology like never before, which may greatly increase our efficiency and power in terms of forecasting and managing healthcare, giving us tools to assist us accomplish so. We now have strong patient advocates and a greater understanding of the value of healthcare than ever before. We now observe that innovation is entering South Africa more quickly than in the past thanks to SAPHRA's sharpening of that. 

The improved timelines in which patients must wait for innovation is an astounding accomplishment worth celebrating. I believe there is momentum and a collection of tools and resources available for use in moving healthcare forward. Everyone is aware of the magnitude of the task at hand, therefore there will undoubtedly be hurdles along the way. However, if we cooperate and work together in the healthcare sector, we can accomplish amazing things, and South Africa will be very different from what it is currently in 10 years. This is such an exciting time to work in healthcare and think about how to do this in a sustainable way, which I know is what your report is about. It has already undergone a major change from how it was ten years ago. 

August 2023
South Africa