The dual perceptions of globalization in health care

Those of us who work in the fields of translation and localization already know that the word globalization carries two similar but distinct meanings. In our industry, we usually use this term at a tactical level to refer to bringing a product, campaign or website to a worldwide scale. We typically view this type of globalization activity as a positive thing — after all, it generates more business for translation suppliers.

However, in the broader world, the term globalization tends to have a more sweeping definition, one that is not always so positive, related to the widening and speeding up of global interconnectedness. Often, it’s employed to refer to the increasingly global nature of cultural and social phenomena, entire industries and the economy. It’s this type of globalization that, while supported by many so-called “globalists,” is also capable of bringing protesters into the streets.

When we pause to consider the current state of health care, it’s clear that both definitions of globalization apply. Translation and localization projects that fall under the umbrella of health care abound and are growing steadily, fueled by impressive global growth of many subsectors, ranging from the manufacturing of pharmaceutical products to medical tourism.

From a purely financial point of view, there is no doubt that the multitrillion-dollar health care sector benefits significantly from globalization. For-profit companies can develop products more quickly and bring them to broader customer bases thanks to production, marketing and distribution channels that become more global each day. That said, critics of health care’s increasingly global nature raise a number of economic and public health issues worth considering when we think about the globalization of health care at large. For example, the vast majority of medical products purchased by hospitals in the United States, such as exam gloves, facemasks and so on, are manufactured overseas. In the event of a public health outbreak, would the United States be unable to source its own medical supplies? Countries have become more dependent on the global supply chain while simultaneously taking on board some risks.

Likewise, 70% of the world’s penicillin and two-thirds of the world’s aspirin are manufactured in China. This leaves many critics concerned that in the event of a global pandemic, China would be likely to prioritize its vast population ahead of all others. When you effectively own the medical supply chain, you exercise a great deal of control not just in the medical sector, but in global public health.

As a result, many stakeholders in the medical sector are considering the importance of diversifying their supply chains while balancing the need for low-cost goods. Meanwhile, as the cost of living continues to increase in many of the same markets that were once regarded as “emerging” and therefore offered the best production prices, companies are looking at switching to suppliers based in other up-and-coming, but less expensive countries.

As supply chains diversify in the health care sector, globalization (the macro kind) marches onward, just down a slightly different path. At the same time, opportunities for globalization (the micro kind) will continue to expand as well. In the language services sector, the demand for globalization-related services has always tracked closely to globalization of the broader kind. And it probably always will. For that reason, it’s important for those of us working in the translation industry to keep one eye on what’s happening at the level of our industry when it comes to the globalization of health care. We must keep the other eye on what goes on at the broader global level. Globalization with a capital G affects us all — as practitioners, as businesspeople — but more importantly, as human beings who are directly affected by the state of global public health.