Insights: Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet Reflects on Merck for Mothers’ Efforts and What’s Next

Alyssa GovindanNews

We sat down with Merck for Mothers Executive Director, Dr. Mary Ann-Etiebet, to hear about the progress that has been made, why she joined the company last year, and what’s next for the global initiative.

  1. Can you give a brief explanation of Merck for Mothers and the initiative’s goals?

Merck for Mothers is our company’s $500 million global initiative to create a world where no woman dies giving life. We’re focused on bringing the best of Merck’s invention and private sector expertise to the cause, and testing innovative models that expand women’s access to quality care with the potential to be scaled and sustained.

  1. How far has Merck for Mothers progressed?

Over the past six years, Merck for Mothers has improved access to quality maternity care and modern contraception for more than six million women around the world. Working with 100+ partners, we have more than 50 projects in more than 30 countries around the world. From advancing lifesaving medicines, to building reliable supply chains and developing new technologies – we’re implementing efforts that ensure women and their health providers are at the center of our solutions.

  1. In your opinion what are some key factors that make the partnerships Merck for Mothers engages in successful?

We know from Merck’s work to curb river blindness, HIV/AIDS, cervical cancer, and other diseases that we cannot succeed if we work alone – partnership is essential to stay ahead of the curve in the rapidly changing world of global health. That’s why we collaborate across sectors – working with governments, NGOs, patient groups, provider associations, entrepreneurs, UN agencies, research institutions, other businesses, and even other pharmaceutical companies.

After several years of programming, we’ve learned that successful partnerships necessitate a shared vision, strong leadership, defined success metrics, clear roles and responsibilities, trust, and openness to welcoming new collaborators. With each of our partnerships, we think through what each partner – including Merck – does best, where they can have the most impact, and how we can work together to accelerate progress.

  1. In past interviews, you’ve spoken to the realm of possibilities in innovation, whether that is through technologies, digital platforms, healthcare delivery or financing. How involved is the private sector on this front and what are some ways the private sector be incentivized to become more involved?

The private sector – from multinational companies to local private health providers and entrepreneurs – is actively involved in driving innovation in global health. One principle within our industry is “fail early/fail fast” – we recognize that innovation comes with a risk-taking mindset and that failure is part of the process of learning and improving. So, we apply that mindset to our global health partnerships, working collaboratively to bring innovations to scale and into the hands of more health providers, women and children.

There is an enormous opportunity – as well as an imperative – for companies to apply this mindset that drives success in business to save and improve millions of lives. One promising way to incentivize greater private sector involvement is through vehicles like the Global Financing Facility (GFF), a multi-stakeholder partnership that supports country-led efforts to improve the health of women, children and adolescents. The GFF financing models harness the private sector’s resources and expertise to achieve much greater impact than any one organization could on its own. Last year, we joined the GFF as the first private sector partner – we hope to set an example for other private companies and encourage their participation and future investments.

  1. Do you think Merck for Mothers is innovating the way the corporate sector is involved in global health and if so, in what ways?

Our efforts very much stem from Merck’s history and values. For over a century, Merck has taken on the most urgent global health challenges — maternal mortality is no exception. We regularly leverage the company’s talent in R&D, clinical trials, data analytics, regulatory, supply chain, IT and other divisions to generate fresh thinking and infuse new, business-minded approaches to help solve the longstanding challenge of maternal mortality.

For example, we’ve partnered with Ferring Pharmaceuticals and the World Health Organization (WHO) to fight the number one cause of maternal deaths: postpartum hemorrhage, or excessive bleeding after childbirth. Through this unique public private-private partnership, we’re working to invent a heat-stable solution by studying a new formulation of a medicine called carbetocin to prevent excessive bleeding after childbirth.

Throughout our efforts, we’re tapping into the company’s expertise to invest in new and creative ideas that disrupt the status quo to find and scale solutions that can sustain gains in women’s health.

  1. As a mother, how can you convey the importance of access to quality maternal health care?

I know first-hand from experiences in my extended family how differences in access to quality care can make a difference between life and death, and the impact it can have on those left behind. These differences do not just occur between nations, they occur within nations, and even between zip codes in the same city. Maternal mortality can strike anyone at any time, but it strikes most often when health systems are not equipped to consistently provide high quality care, or to effectively reach out to women to engage them in care. Access to quality maternal health care is a critical vital sign of any country’s health system. It creates the foundation of health and well-being for women, their families and their communities. Being able to work on such a life defining issue through Merck for Mothers is a privilege that I am reminded of each time I look at my two daughters.

  1. How does empowering women, equipping health workers and strengthening health systems have a ripple effect in the communities where you work? In other words, do you find that when women can access the resources they need to keep themselves and their children healthy, others are directly affected?

If a mother dies, her baby is 10 times more likely to die before age two; and her other children are up to 10 times more likely to leave school, suffer from poor health, or die prematurely. Whether factoring in these statistics or our own personal experiences, we know that a healthy pregnancy and childbirth can lead to a lifetime of benefits, both for a woman’s own health and prosperity as well as that of her children.  So the more we all can do to support mothers and strengthen the health system she interacts with, the more it will have a positive impact not only on her, but her family, community and nation—for generations to come.

  1. You wrote a post last month reflecting on the WEF annual meeting in Davos. In it you mentioned health impact bonds and your partnership to create the Utkrisht Development Bond. Could you speak a little bit to the nature of these bonds and why they are pioneering?

In order to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, we – and I mean all of us – need to fill a $33 billion funding gap. This will require new tools, financing mechanisms and partnerships. A Development Impact Bond (DIB) brings together private investors, implementers, governments and donors to pave the way for a more results-oriented and sustainable approach to supporting health and economic prosperity, especially in growing markets. The risk of failure is shifted to investors, allowing governments and other donors to spend resources more effectively.

The Utkrisht Impact Bond in India, for example, is designed to improve the quality of private maternity care for 600,000 women in Rajasthan, a region with high rates of maternal mortality. Whether through this example — as well as what we concentrate on next — we are focusing our energy in areas where the need is great, our resources can contribute distinctively, and there is opportunity to apply the insights we are gleaning to scale what works.

Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet is the Executive Director of Merck for Mothers and has two decades of experience improving healthcare outcomes for vulnerable populations and transforming healthcare delivery at the frontlines.

Alyssa GovindanInsights: Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet Reflects on Merck for Mothers’ Efforts and What’s Next