Innovation is Essential to Achieve Global Health

October 19, 2017
Steve Davis
Livermore, Calif

After college, I landed a teaching fellowship in Asia, which gave me the opportunity to do a lot of traveling. During that time, I visited the refugee camps in Thailand that were filled with people who were escaping the horrific genocide in Cambodia. That experience forced me to grapple with the scale of unfairness and suffering in the world and shaped my thinking about what it means to be a global citizen. I’ve worked at a wide range of innovative technology-driven businesses in the years since and I’ve come to believe that innovative approaches to tools, products and processes offer the best hope for addressing the health inequities that exist in the world today.

This is why I joined PATH. A leader in global health innovation with more than 1,600 employees in 70 countries working to harness entrepreneurial insight, scientific and public health expertise, the people at PATH have a deep passion for saving and improving lives in the world’s most vulnerable communities.

The PATH Difference

The thing that makes PATH unique—and uniquely effective—is our ability to bring partners together from government, the private sector, nonprofits, academic institutions and foundations. This multisector approach makes it possible to mobilize the expertise, resources and funding needed to develop innovative solutions that can have a positive impact on people’s lives at the scale needed to make a real difference.

For PATH, the “sweet spot” in all this is what I call the “unsexy middle” of the value chain of social innovation. Of course we play a role at either end of this value chain—initial development where ideas turn into potential solutions and the “last mile” where vaccines, drugs, diagnostics and devices reach the people who need them. But the heart of our work takes place in the middle. The journey from great idea to life-saving intervention is long and difficult, and many promising concepts don’t make it through what some people call the “innovation valley of death.” Our multisector approach enables us to work with the right partners to ensure that solutions that can make a difference for people in the world’s poorest communities reach the point where they can have an impact.

There are so many examples of the power of this approach. Sayana Press is a safe, simple injectable contraceptive created and championed by PATH and our partners that gives women the ability to control their own reproductive health. Ultra Rice—grains of fortified rice mixed with regular rice—is helping millions of people on three continents get the micronutrients they need to live healthier lives.

And in sub-Saharan Africa, a vaccine we developed in partnership with World Health Organization, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Serum Institute of India has all but eliminated the meningitis epidemics that devastated that region for decades. In 1996, a quarter of a million people fell ill and more than 25,000 died. In 2013, there were only four confirmed cases.

Why Global Health Matters

We have made so much progress in global health during the past 25 years or so. The percentage of the world’s people who live in extreme poverty has been cut in half. Average life expectancy has increased by more than six years. Childhood mortality has been reduced by 50 percent. Polio has nearly been eradicated. These advances are unprecedented in human history.

But we still live in a world filled with enormous inequities in health. Every year, four million children in poor communities die of pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and other treatable diseases. This should be unacceptable to all of us.

Underneath this number is the problem of poverty. Poor health is one of the most basic causes of poverty around the world. The conditions of poverty—including lack of access to basic health care, adequate nutrition, and safe water and sanitation—are the cause of so much disease and death. Poor health and poverty reinforce each other in a negative cycle that causes untold suffering.

I believe health equity is the cornerstone of social justice, economic opportunity and political stability, and global health is the foundation for a better, more stable and economically vibrant world. Where you were born, your gender, or your economic status—none of that should matter. Everyone deserves to live a healthy live.

Innovation as Solution

Social innovation is my passion. I define it as disruptive approaches to social problems that have sustained positive impact on the lives of large numbers of people. I believe we can only achieve this through multisector partnerships that enable us to come up with new products, new services, new financing methods and new delivery models.

Two dramatic changes over the past quarter century make social innovation particularly promising. One is the incredible global economic expansion of the past three decades that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class. As people have moved out of extreme poverty, it has created new opportunities to work with the private sector to improve health and quality of life.

The second is the opportunity to use disruptive digital technologies like mobile devices, geospatial mapping and advanced analytics to deliver breakthrough solutions. A project PATH is leading called Visualize No Malaria is demonstrating how powerful these capabilities can be in places like southern Zambia, where we’re making remarkable progress tackling a disease that kills more than 400,000 people every year. There, rural health workers using mobile phones and new data mapping models can track every new case, find isolated pockets of the disease, and identify and treat those who are sick but have no symptoms. Ten years ago, half of the people who lived in that region had malaria. Now it is less than one in 200.

The Way Forward

Technology-driven innovation will be key to making progress in global health. It was a central topic of discussion at the United Nations General Assembly in September. These conversations need to continue, and PATH will continue to play a leading role, in part because we’ve assembled a wide coalition of partners to help ministers of health and national leaders across Africa digitize their health systems.

Capacity is another issue. We need more people around the world to join the fight for global health equity. I’m excited to see a new generation of young leaders working on advocacy, science, academia and politics but there still aren’t enough people working on these issues. It’s so important to continue to develop talent and capacity and the Hertz Foundation’s Fellowship for Global Health and Development is a great step.

To anyone considering getting involved in global health work, I say now is the time. Even though the day-to-day headlines can make it sound like the world is headed in the wrong direction, the trend lines tell a different story—more people are living healthy lives than ever before, more women are surviving childbirth and more children are making it past age 5.

Global health work is among the most challenging things you can do. But it is an extraordinary privilege to play a role in improving—even saving—millions of lives. Everybody has something to contribute. We need all types of thinking and skills. I’m proof you don’t need to be a doctor or scientist to have a positive impact on global health equity.

About Steve Davis

Steve Davis is the President and CEO of PATH, where he is applying his experience as a technology business leader, global health advocate and social innovator. He previously served as director of Social Innovation at McKinsey & Company, CEO of Corbis, interim director of Infectious Disease Research Institute and practiced law at international firm K&L Gates. Steve is also a lecturer on social innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He is currently a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, serves on the board of InterAction, Challenge Seattle and is a trustee on the World Economic Forum’s Global Health Challenge. Steve holds a Bachelor’s degree in Religion from Princeton University, a Master’s degree in Chinese studies from the University of Washington and a law degree from Columbia University.