In the past few years, there has been an explosion and evolution of corporate titles, which I believe reflects the fact that companies are facing new challenges– from sustainability and greater supply chain transparency to data/privacy – and need to be clear both to internal staff and external partners that they are elevating these issues and taking them seriously. But health remains absent from the rank of C-Suite titles.

Naming a Chief Sustainability Officer, a Chief Privacy Officer, or a Chief Innovation Officer makes it loud and clear that these are issues you take seriously as a company – If those titles come with actual responsibility, decision-making ability, and ideally, a direct reporting line to the Chief Executive Officer.

(Other companies use such titles to show how innovative or creative they are, such as Google with their Chief Internet Evangelist Officer or Kodak with their Chief Listening Officer.)

The bottom line is that issues like data/privacy and sustainability are no longer fringe topics left to pioneers or trail blazers. They are essential to the core way of doing business, and companies need to recognize how important it is to do what is right both for the business and for society as a whole. This concept is the fundamental tenet of shared value as defined by Michael Porter.

So what about companies’ greatest asset, their people?

Traditionally, Human Resource departments have been in charge of managing talent and benefits, and companies sometimes have a Chief Medical Officer (CMO) who addresses medical needs of employees, ranging from occupational safety and health to managing health care costs. With the growing costs of health care, forward thinking companies such as IBM, Dow Chemical, and Johnson & Johnson have added workplace wellbeing programs, focused on health promotion and chronic disease prevention, to the CMO role.

This is a great start, but not enough.

The Case for a Chief Health Officer

The position of Chief Health Officer (CHO) has been identified as critical to ensure strengthened leadership in health. So why the focus on the term health instead of medical, and what even makes a good CHO?

For the CHO to be successful, it’s important that responsibilities not be compartmentalized, and for the role to focus on health as it relates to three key areas:

  • employees,
  • products and services, and
  • interactions with communities (the latter typically being part of a corporate foundation’s mandate).

In a nutshell, companies should take a more integrated approach as this role emerges – in much that same way we’ve seen the responsibilities of Chief Sustainability Officer evolve.

Given that health care costs are often the greatest expense for an employer outside of payroll, it’s critical that the CHO has a seat at the table for executive decision-making. The role of the CHO is guided primarily by sound evidence, science, and ethics. While it may raise the potential for conflict between a company’s profit and loss in the short term, ultimately the presence of a CHO within executive decision-making bodies of companies raises the potential for employee health, healthier products, and more effective prevention services to be addressed proactively and through often tough considerations of short-term versus long-term business interests.

In recent years, the military have shown how strengthening the focus on health enhances the resilience of individual soldiers and their families and that leads to national resilience over the long-term. And they are investing accordingly! What is true in the military is also true within companies.

The cost implications for employers, employees and society (seen through Medicare costs that are rising faster than inflation, growing 68% since 2002) have forced a long overdue debate and we admonish businesses to embrace the sense of urgency when it comes to using the power of prevention to bend future cost curves.

By collaborating across sectors and along common interest lines, employees from the private and public sectors can help curb their costs and keep both their and national competitiveness high, increasing our collective resilience which will help tackle other challenges on the horizon, from data and privacy to aging employees. But those are two whole other stories.

Derek Yach is Chief Health Officer of The Vitality Group, part of Discovery Holdings Ltd, where he leads the Vitality Institute for Health Promotion. Prior to that he was SVP of Global Health and Agriculture Policy at PepsiCo. He is a member of the Board of Directors at Cornerstone Capital Group.