WEF Global Risks 2020: Evolving threats require health leaders to take action

Stephanie Shufelt, MBA

Founder of HealthcareTransformers.com

WEF Global Risks 2020: Evolving threats require health leaders to take action

20 February 2020 | 6min

Quick Takes

  • In its Global Risk Report 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) cautions that health systems around the world are at risk of becoming unfit for purpose

  • Emerging risks such as the increase in non-communicable diseases, along with breakthrough risks stemming from new technologies like artificial intelligence, contribute to the current volatility of health systems

  • Healthcare leaders can help to overcome some of these challenges by promoting disease prevention and early diagnosis, improving access, and embracing the digital revolution in healthcare

Health systems risk becoming “unfit for purpose” amid emerging and new threats

Health systems risk becoming “unfit for purpose” amid emerging and new threats.

Global warming and our increasing carbon footprint. Growing financial inequality and the risk of economic crisis. Political instability and a fracturing society. Runaway artificial intelligence (AI) and uncontrolled use of technology. All of these topics dominated the conversation at the 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting.

One important topic that received attention was global health – and specifically, the growing inability of health systems to cope with the myriad of threats and changes they face. WEF included global health in its Global Risk Report 2020, where they caution that health systems around the world are at risk of becoming unfit for purpose. The report states that:

“changing societal, environmental, demographic and technological patterns are straining their capacity” and that “the institutions and approaches that have until now enabled health progress across the world…are at risk of becoming unfit for purpose.”

The risk report outlined several emerging healthcare-related risks: 

  • The increasing rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and mental disorders that have now replaced infectious diseases as the leading threats to health and health systems worldwide
  • Climate change health effects due to pollutants in air, food and water and the exacerbated incidence of infectious diseases.
  • Demand–capacity mismatch, as more people live longer and have increasing health needs and expectations.
  • Workforce limitations, as most health systems fail to train and retain the needed amount of skilled doctors, nurses and other health workers

Beyond these emerging risks, the report also highlights new breakthrough risks that stem from transformative factors, including:      

  • Disruptive technologies like AI and machine learning and the potential for new data privacy and security risks, as well as bias and errors that could be hard to spot and stop 
  • The advent of breakthrough pharmaceuticals that can have radically positive, even curative, effects on devastating diseases – but at potentially tremendous monetary costs.  

As the size and complexity of the world’s healthcare challenges grow, leaders in healthcare can step up and play a central role in addressing these risks. To do so, they need to look at ways to widen their scope and extend their impact. But how?

What can leaders do to help overcome health system challenges 

Promote disease prevention and early diagnosis 

For many NCDs such as cancer and diabetes, an early diagnosis can lead to more effective disease management. Investing more in screening technologies, early and accurate diagnostic solutions, and prevention could lead to potentially great cost savings for the overall health system and improved patient outcomes.  


1) Use epidemiological and outcome data to focus on areas of investment to support prevention or early detection of diseases (for example, novel diagnostic procedures or technologies)

2) Support educational programs that promote disease prevention or early diagnosis, which can be especially effective for NCDs

3) Use genetic information or companion diagnostics to help identify which patients will benefit from a specific treatment when available

Improve access

Access to healthcare where and when it is needed is critical for patients to achieve optimal health outcomes. Delays in treatment can result in irreversible disease progression and potentially exacerbate the cost of care for both the patient and the health system. By working to improve access to treatment and care, we may in turn begin to restore some equilibrium in demand versus capacity. At the same time, earlier treatment may help delay or even stop progression of certain NCDs, alleviating cost pressures associated with treatment of advanced diseases. 


1) Use technology like telehealth to offer remote consultation or treatment services. This is especially helpful for people in rural areas who live far away from a clinic or hospital, and those who may not be able to see a doctor during normal office hours.

2) Increase the healthcare workforce. Beyond physicians, nurses and other non-physician healthcare practitioners can help dramatically improve availability of basic healthcare services. 

3) Consider using AI for staffing and scheduling. This may help to improve workforce operation and allow for the proper allocation of resources depending on demand. Ultimately, this may lead to decreased wait times for patients, and increased staff satisfaction and improved retention.

Embrace digital

A lot has been written about the need to embrace the digital revolution in healthcare. The potential benefits are clear: improving diagnosis; better management of staffing and resources;  more convenient delivery of care; improved ownership of health and engagement for patients. Digital tools have the ability to alleviate both systemic and emerging healthcare risks. However, great care must be taken with regard to data privacy and security. 

Healthcare data is some of the most personal and sensitive, and the loss or exposure of such data can have long-term effects – both for people whose data is lost, as well as for the organizations which fail to properly protect it.


1) Prioritize IT budgets to security spending and malware/virus protection. Spending more up front to avoid a breach or data loss will save a lot of cost and headache later. 

2) Ensure your data is properly encrypted. No patient data should be collected, stored or transmitted in a non-encrypted way. And use the latest technology, such as blockchain, as it becomes available. A good example is the Estonian e-Health Foundation that was the first to use blockchain technology as an additional layer of security to help ensure the integrity of health records.1

3) Offer cybersecurity training and education to staff. Even the most secure systems can be breached if someone on the inside opens a compromised file or provides critical information to hackers. Cybersecurity training is not only vital, but it should become embedded in the very culture of an organization so that all employees follow the rules rigorously every day.

Collaborate to innovate

Collaborate to innovate in healthcare.

Of course, every healthcare provider is constantly and relentlessly in pursuit of innovative ways to save costs, increase efficiency, protect and develop their staff – all while keeping patient quality of care at the top of the list. However, it is increasingly clear that the great ideas cannot all be generated in-house – and this is even more the case in an increasingly digital world. 

Collaboration is required, both within healthcare organizations via cross-disciplinary teams to deal with complex medical challenges, and also externally among all stakeholders such as payers, regulatory bodies, healthcare professionals, and patients and patient advocacy groups. Only through partnerships that link such diverse expertise can we work towards a common set of goals and overcome the most difficult challenges facing healthcare today.       

The next 20 years will be challenging for healthcare systems. Systems are at risk of buckling under the weight of demographic factors, the chronic disease burden, outbreaks of infectious diseases and ever-rising costs. It is imperative that healthcare leaders and executives recognize these challenges and risks, and look for opportunities to help mitigate them. How healthcare leaders steer their organizations through this transformation will determine whether they will be successful in what promises to be a vastly different healthcare landscape of the future.

Stephanie Shufelt, MBA is one of the editors and founders of HealthcareTransformers.com. She is dedicated to delivering high quality content on the topic of the future of healthcare to our readers.


  1. Einaste. (2018). Article available from https://e-estonia.com/blockchain-healthcare-estonian-experience/ [Accessed February 2020]

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