is no stranger to China. He first began traveling to the country in 1995, after being tapped to lead Johnson & Johnson’s growth in the Asia Pacific, Eastern European and Latin American regions, and has since visited “dozens and dozens of times.”
But on his most recent trip to Beijing, Sneed—now Worldwide Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs and Chief Communication Officer—noticed that the country's approach to healthcare has changed considerably from his last visit in 2015.
“The government has increased its investment in healthcare infrastructure and strengthened primary care for the good of the people,” he explains.
It was good timing, too, because part of Sneed's mission was to introduce Johnson & Johnson’s GenH Challenge in China. The global social venture competition is aimed at finding solutions for some of the world's toughest health problems, so people born after 2011 can live even healthier lives than prior generations.
We sat down with Sneed to learn about more eye-opening moments from his trip, as well as the work Johnson & Johnson is doing in China to help improve the lives of its 1.3 billion citizens.
How would you compare the health of China's citizens overall today to, say, 10 years ago?
In general, people are in a much better position. The Chinese government understands the power of having healthy citizens and has recognized that healthcare is a key contributor to economic growth.
There was a time when, if you were ill in China, you had to go to a major city to find a hospital. There were none in the provinces. That’s not a sustainable model. So over the last decade, China has built up its healthcare system in rural areas—and they’ve slowly made great strides. Most Chinese citizens are covered under healthcare now, and it’s relatively affordable.
Johnson & Johnson has been invested in communities around the world for a long time. For instance, the China Neonatal Resuscitation Program has saved the lives of 150,000 babies to date. It's quite remarkable.
Of course, they still have challenges. For instance, you hear about environmental issues there, and the perception is that China has been slow to act. But in the last few years, it seems to me they have started to understand the importance of environmental health. I think you’ll see a big push in the next few years in the way you’ve seen one with primary care and insurance for everyone.
Johnson & Johnson’s Global Community Impact (GCI) programs aim to help improve healthcare worldwide. Can you tell us about the work GCI is doing in China specifically?
Johnson & Johnson has been invested in many communities around the world for a long time. For instance, the China Neonatal Resuscitation Program, which trains caregivers to make sure babies can breathe at birth, has been in place for many years. To date, the program has saved the lives of 150,000 babies in China. It’s quite remarkable.
Increasingly, China is relying on community groups to improve care, which makes it a good example of a country that understands the impact communities can make on the healthcare system. If you give people incentive and the ability to think creatively, they can come up with great ideas.
What are the greatest health challenges that GenH faces in China, and what is Johnson & Johnson doing to help address them?
There are a number of really big needs. It’s a huge country. For one, the number of births every year is astounding—18 million in 2016 alone. We’re focused on making sure those births can be healthy.
Next is that the number of healthcare workers relative to the population is low. In China, nurses carry a heavy burden and are often underappreciated.
So we took on the challenge of raising public opinion about the profession by conveying the idea that they’re on front lines of care, and that the country needs more professional caregivers like them. This began as part of our YAES (Yin Ai Er Sheng, which translates to Because We Care, We Act) Campaign that started in 2008 with the Beijing Olympics.
The third big challenge is around mental illness. Both the country’s youngest population and its adult population suffer from mental health issues. However, mental health has been stigmatized in China and is rarely talked about. You must address the challenge in a uniquely Chinese way, and we’ve figured out a model to do that.
One of the nonprofits we’re working with helped us develop an idea called the Flower Shop Project. They set up a shop where people affected by mental illness could sell flowers and develop flower-themed artwork. It was great therapy for patients to engage with the public, and provided a way for the public to understand mental illness and the people behind it.
We saw this as a pilot. Now that we’ve seen success, we think it has the ability to move into different neighborhoods.
Johnson & Johnson just announced a global GenH Challenge, asking big-picture thinkers to submit ideas that could help solve our toughest healthcare problems. What types of ideas do you hope to find?
The GenH Challenge is a reflection of our commitment to the health of everybody around the world, recognizing that we live in a time unlike any other. We have a tremendous number of people being born into an age of possibility, no matter where you are in the world, because of the overall growth of the economy.
When it comes to the kinds of ideas we’re looking for, we’re trying to leave it broad. Consistent with our Credo, we will focus on ideas that benefit patients, consumers and healthcare workers. We also will look for ideas that will come directly from communities, since they have the best insights and know how to make an impact at the local level. Then, if we can scale them, great.
For us, it starts with our commitment to our Citizenship & Sustainability 2020 Goals. This is the next phase of that commitment.
Each generation grows up with more access to technology than the one before. Was there anything you learned about health tech on your trip that could be groundbreaking for GenH?
I visited a healthcare incubator and the amount of tech I was exposed to from these entrepreneurs was startling. One man in his early 20s developed an app to allow citizens to make doctor appointments digitally on their smartphones. We may take that for granted in the U.S., but it’s a big deal in China.
I also learned that the Alibaba Group—one of the biggest Chinese companies—is getting into healthcare by developing platforms for all 600 hospitals across China’s provinces. For instance, the company has launched a hospital booking system that allows you to take prescriptions and transfer them to the pharmacy, and get medicine delivered—all through your phone.
When it comes to innovation, in general, I think the government has made clear that it wants innovations that are generated from China. I’ve been around long enough to see the changes in their mindset. There was a period when China was happy to import products from the West, then the country focused on making products for export, then they wanted to make products for the local market, and now they’re pushing for homegrown innovation.
I believe they will get to a place where they can export that innovation to others, too.