Editor’s note: Janet Cowell was North Carolina’s State Treasurer from 2009-16. Matthew Leatherman was her Policy Director in 2015-16. Cowell and Leatherman submitted this guest opinion in advance of the Triangle Global Health Consortium’s annual conference, “Making a Difference: Global Health and its Social, Economic, and Political Impact,” today in Raleigh.

RALEIGH – Twenty-six thousand North Carolinians work for the global health sector, according to recent research by RTI International for the Triangle Global Health Consortium, and their work adds about $3.7 billion to the state’s economy annually. That’s about $370 for every person in the state.

Jobs and wages like that matter for North Carolina. That’s the message of the Triangle Global Health Consortium’s study, and they are right. Still people in communities that lack this business sector need to hear a different message.

For most of us, the message is that this work can help bring higher-quality health care into our communities. Lessons learned 5,000 miles away by global health organizations matter right here.

We have seen this benefit recently and from multiple vantage points.

Personal experience

Matt and his wife became parents to a premature baby on New Year’s Day. Josie was born at 27 weeks of gestation, weighed a pound and a half, and had to be hospitalized for her first 142 days at UNC’s neonatal critical care center. Parents there learn immediately about something called “kangaroo care,” a very simple practice of holding a baby skin-to-skin on the chest, and UNC’s care teams emphasize it to the point of even having friendly races to see which baby can tally the most kangaroo time in a month.

Kangaroo care originated in the South American country of Colombia. Its power is its simplicity. No one needs any training to hold a baby skin-to-skin on their chest. And, for the preterm baby, it provides body heat that they cannot generate alone and critical rhythms that they can mimic: breathing, to avoid fatal apnea, and heart beating, to avoid fatal heart slow-downs. ( https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/newborn-kangaroo-care)

If you deliver a preterm baby at many North Carolina hospitals, chances are good that the care team will put them skin-to-skin on your chest while you wait for transport to a place like UNC Children’s Hospital.

Whether you know the global health sector exists in North Carolina or not, it is helping you in moments like that by giving you access to health care innovation from around the world.

Exporting knowledge, too

Doctors and hospitals are part of this sector here, along with businesses that do clinical trials globally and nonprofit organizations that provide care around the world, like FHI360, RTI, and IntraHealth. Indeed they are among more than 220 North Carolina organizations that work in global health accordingly to Dr. Claire Neal, executive director for the Triangle Global Health Consortium.  Most importantly, patients are part of this sector too – our medical professionals export the lessons they learn from our care and import those that they learn from colleagues around the world.

Dr. Neal stressed that “global health focuses on improving the health of communities – both in our own country and around the world.”

Still there is more to be gained by building on this powerful precedent for live-saving health innovation moving from the developing world to the developed world.

As State Treasurer, Janet oversaw administration of the State Health Plan for more than 600,000 teachers, first responders, and civil servants statewide. Improving their health is an imperative for our state on its own and because it is the best way to control costs, since health need and medical claims are by far the biggest cost for administrators to manage. Yet, while the needs are significant everywhere in North Carolina, ranging from managing chronic diseases like diabetes to preventative care for expecting mothers, the services to meet these needs are not.

Many of our communities wrestle with how to improve access to quality health care without quick, physical access to specialists and hospitals. This problem is similar to challenges in other parts of the world, although thankfully less severe. Specifically, many North Carolinians are distant from specialists and a hospital with critical care facilities. New medical information from world-class facilities trickles to them from the Triangle.

State Senator Jay Chaudhuri, whose Wake County district includes many of these organizations, is speaking at a Triangle Global Health Consortium event on Thursday. He emphasized to us that “importing global health lessons back to North Carolina should be a growing focus for organizations based in the Triangle. Access to quality healthcare is essential wherever you live.”

Twenty-six thousand professionals, together with the families and businesses that they support, earn income from global health in North Carolina. We’re thankful for it. And people like Josie are alive throughout our state because of the work of these 26,000 people.

That is the impact that matters most. Insights that our health care providers have learned outside of the U.S. have improved the access in underserved parts of our state, but the gap remains – including here, on the edge of the Triangle. We’ll take all of the help that we can.

[i] https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/newborn-kangaroo-care