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Thomas Zeltner, M.D.  

Former Director-General, Swiss National Health Authority and Secretary of Health, Switzerland; Globally Respected Public Health Leader, Health Diplomat and Expert in Health System Reform

Thomas Zeltner, M.D., served as the secretary of health of Switzerland for 19 years. He has been at the heart of the ever-changing architecture of global health and served as a coordinator of the dialog between industry, academia, government, NGOs and philanthropists—the five major actors on the global health stage. As a highly respected public health leader and health diplomat, Zeltner was the natural choice of the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) to serve WHO as special envoy and leader in the reform process of this UN organization from 2012 – 2014. He believes that the business sector must continuously adapt to current and new health challenges in the rapidly changing health landscape. As the list of newly emerging infectious microbes gets longer every month, their devastating potential for pandemic outbreaks constitute a high threat for national and international security and economies around the world. These challenges and the shift to market forces toward verifiable health quality and value represent enormous business opportunities for industry. As the Swiss health minister, Zeltner presided over changes to transform the regulated market model of the Swiss health care sector into a more value- and consumer-driven health care system. More than seven million Swiss citizens enjoyed better quality care than the U.S. for 60% of the cost over the same period. The Swiss model of health care, which guarantees access to a comprehensive benefit package to all residents, is becoming a model of great interest around the globe. Recognized for his leadership, Zeltner was a senior fellow, Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative (2010), visiting scientist, Harvard School of Public Health, and co-founder, the Global Patient Safety Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, a convening organization of a number of the world’s leading patient safety organizations. He also serves on numerous boards of directors, including the Interacademy Medical Panel (IAMP), the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, and the most innovative Swiss health insurance company, KPT.


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Speech Topics

Illicit Drug Policy: How to Get Out of the Gridlock – The Swiss Example

In 2013, a number of political leaders of Latin America joined a group of European countries in their concerns that the current international counter-narcotics regime produces more detrimental side effects such as criminal violence, massive prison populations and health-associated problems than it contributes to reducing the harm of illicit drug consumption. The UN General Assembly will address a special session on drugs in 2016 exploring alternative policies, including the legalization of some currently prohibited substances, in hopes of overcoming the gridlock that has dominated the drug debate of the last 20 years. Switzerland is one of the countries that successfully overcame the sterile debate of the last two decades by introducing new public health instruments into their drug policy—a policy change that was the result of a long and difficult but ultimately successful political process. Thomas Zeltner, Director-General and Secretary of Health of Switzerland (1991–2009), was a key actor in the development and implementation of this policy change and a critical analyst of international drug policy issues. He shares his experiences and discusses this instructive case study in an effort to help educate the international community on Switzerland’s success.

What Can the US Learn from the High-Performing Swiss Health Care System?

Switzerland's health system delivers significantly better outcomes and customer satisfaction than the US at 60% of its costs. The Swiss and U.S. health systems both strongly build on private health care providers competing among each other. Given the similarity of the two systems, why does the Swiss system outperform the U.S. so substantially? Are there lessons to be learned from Switzerland? Thomas Zeltner, Director-General and Secretary of Health of Switzerland (1991-2009), has a deep insight into both systems and shares his thoughts with audiences on the vast differences in health-related outcomes and costs.

Health Security: How to Handle the Threat of Infectious Diseases and their Economic Impact in a Globalized World

Ebola, SARS, swine flu: the list of newly emerging infectious microbes gets longer every month. Apart from their devastating potential for health, pandemic outbreaks constitute a top-listed threat for national and international security and the global economy. SARS, for instance, killed a relatively small number of people worldwide (800) but had a massive global economic impact. Under the leadership of the World Health Organization, the global community has developed an international framework on how to prevent and respond to acute public health risks that have the potential to cross borders and threaten populations worldwide. The business community has an important role to play within this framework as a public health emergency of international concern can have a devastating impact on business activity. Preparing for such an emergency is vital to the global business community. Thomas Zeltner, Director-General and Secretary of Health of Switzerland (1991–2009), has been a key actor in the development of the global framework of International Health Regulations and uniquely positioned to address this topic with audiences.

The Importance of the Architecture of Global Health Governance in the Business World

The improvement of health between and within countries has become a key issue on the global political agenda. It is a central part of the Millennium Development Goals, adopted by the United Nations in 2000, as improving health is a key factor for prosperity as is prosperity for better health. The private sector is an indispensable actor/partner in the local and global co-production of health. It is imperative to bring governments and non-state actors such as the private sector, academia, philanthropic organizations and NGOs into harmony on global goals to tackle the big health challenges we face. Without them working together, more will suffer harm and cost. The different actors need to understand the rapidly changing architecture of global health governance. This is particularly important for the private sector because it acts in an increasingly dense meshwork of international norms and standards that affect their businesses. And it is deeply affected by the commitment of the UN member states to reduce the premature mortality of heart and lung diseases as well as cancer and diabetes by 25% until 2025. Thomas Zeltner has served the World Health Organization as special envoy on WHO’s engagement with non-state actors (2013–2014). He shares with audiences his intimate understanding of the actors and the current developments in this key area.

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