17 Conference Report #techonomy17

Advancing Global Health With Tech


  • From left: Dr. Agnes Binagwaho of University of Global Health Equity, Oliver Hsiang from Johnson & Johnson, Vyomesh Joshi of 3D Systems, and Roy Smythe of Philips with moderator David Kirkpatrick. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma Photography


Agnes Binagwaho
Vice Chancellor, University of Global Health Equity

Oliver Hsiang
Global Head of Health Technology Partnerships & Corporate Development, Johnson & Johnson

Vyomesh Joshi
CEO, 3D Systems

Roy Smythe
Chief Medical Officer – Healthcare Informatics, Philips


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

Session Description: Billions of people are getting healthier. But it isn’t enough. Far too many people globally still die from preventable causes, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 aim to radically reduce that. What role is tech playing in health progress? How can we continue to advance toward the SDG health goals?

Below is an excerpt of the conversation with the full transcript available here.

Kirkpatrick: I’ll start with introductions. Roy is Chief Medical Officer for the Global Connected Care and Healthcare Informatics Group at Philips. He’s a doctor who has only joined industry in the last years after a career running hospitals and doing an awful lot of innovative things in the healthcare industry about which he is has impressively strong opinions, which I hope will be displayed on this panel.

You’ve met VJ who I introduced before. Really one of the great business leaders in American business, who’s turned to his new job turning around 3D Systems, and basically made it into a healthcare company, which is really exciting.

Next, Oliver Hsiang leads the Health Technology Partnerships and Corporate Development Team at Johnson & Johnson. So he’s a Silicon Valley guy, who has moved into healthcare.

And finally, Agnes Binagwaho is Rwandan; she was formerly Minister of Health in Rwanda. Some of you have seen her at our program before. She was at our New York conference earlier this year. And she’s currently Vice Chancellor of the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda, which she may talk about a little bit. It’s a university that really aims to help grow knowledge about how to transform medical systems and to build more practitioners who can use modern tools across the world, even in the poorest parts of the world, to really make the health changes that are absolutely necessary.

Just to reiterate the theme of this discussion, it really is about how technology can advance global health. And at Techonomy we consider that an absolutely urgent priority. In the description we refer to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which as you’ll hear, are very important to us. They are goals for 2030 and one of them, several of them pertain to health, but they are not easy to achieve, because they’re very ambitious. But we need ambitious goals to change the world.

So maybe ladies first, start with Agnes.

Binagwaho: It’s not difficult in this panel, no? There is no competition. Okay, ladies first.


Kirkpatrick:  Why don’t we let you quickly talk just a little bit about what you’re doing exactly and how to think, from your perspective, about what the challenge is with global health and what the opportunity is with technology?

Binagwaho: Let’s remember first that global starts where you have your feet. Every person on earth is the center of global health. So we have learned, by how we implement for success, what are the principles behind that? And they are very few. The first one is: leave nobody out. Whatever you do, whatever technology you try to introduce, always think what it will bring to the most vulnerable member of that community. And if you manage it, everybody will cope with it and will use it. So all the others take a couple of years to learn it. But the objective is to create systems that are human-centered, using innovation and technology around this. And since yesterday we discussed is it for the best or for the worst? Technology has no soul. The soul is with the humans who are using it. And I can give the same question that was asked at the beginning. Guttenberg, when he was doing books, everybody was saying, “Oh my God, what is this going to bring?” And of course, it has changed the balance of power. Of course it has increased the possibility of education. So this is what we want to do. It’s in rural Rwanda, and the principles that we teach are applicable all across the world, because the need of the people is the same and the way we can leverage all innovation and technology. That’s what we teach, and I advise all of you to come and see.

Kirkpatrick: Good. We’re going to try and do that by the way. And it is deliberately located in a rural part of Rwanda because you wanted people to learn in a context that is similar to where the work needs to be done, right?

Binagwaho: Yes, because the majority of the world lives in a rural area. The majority of clinicians are educated in cities. And after that you ask them, “Can you go and work where the people are?” They don’t know how to do that. So we start educating where the needs are.

Kirkpatrick: It’s a good idea. Let me just ask you one last basic question: given that you are interacting, in your former position as a minister and in your work now talking to people from around the world—with government leaders and health experts from so many countries—how would you characterize the state of awareness and readiness to take advantage of what technology makes possible in the countries around the world, particularly the poor ones that you know so much about?

Binagwaho: So first of all, we have to say that we have made it so complicated for people. They believe that it’s impossible to achieve, and that’s not true. Just think about the phone that has [such] huge penetration in Africa and that can be used for everything, for so many things. So technology we need to simplify it, but we need to simplify the way we talk about it. It’s not complicated; you don’t need a masters to do this. You just have to some more education that is simple and you can have on-site or during your basic education. Could we start talking about technology in kindergarten? In primary school, secondary school? So it accompanies your life? So it is not complicated. People are aware but just opposed because they believe it’s too much for them. They don’t want to look dumb and not capable to use it. And there are many people, unfortunately, who are afraid to use their power with the old way to do business. So they believe that young, very active people will come and take over their position.

Kirkpatrick: Okay, it’s always the job security that it comes down to in the end.

So Oliver, I know one of the things about Johnson & Johnson that we’ve learned at Techonomy that we’re really excited about is the way you really are taking a global view. You’re really thinking how can the innovations that we come up with and the capabilities that we have, really apply to improved health in literally every place? So talk a little bit about the thinking at the company. And also how you, as a technologist coming into Johnson & Johnson, are trying to use tech more and help the company embrace technology as a tool, and what’s happening there.

Hsiang: Yeah, so technology’s exciting because it can be distributed globally at relatively low cost, depending on how you do it. So the ultimate goal, of course, is improving outcomes. And we think a lot about democratizing access to that care and technology is the driving force behind that.

One example I can come up with is, especially when you think about things like income inequality and the lack or divergence of access to care in developing versus developed areas, how can we do better to reduce that and eliminate that? And one program that we came up with was really around improving maternal health and baby health. If you think about the efforts that Facebook has made with Internet.org to make connectivity available to all, to every corner of the Earth, we think about that in a health-specific context. So how can we deliver, in this case, important and critical content and information around pregnancy to pregnant moms. And we’ve reached, through various programs, over 4 million women, ranging from low-income urban areas in India to parts of Bangladesh and Africa and [others]. And so this is exciting, because sometimes we take for granted in the developed world this access to information. Through these programs we can push, through mobile messaging, important information that ranges from preventative care to important milestone information about where you might be during your pregnancy. Things that might not otherwise be available. And you were mentioning now, the phones, they don’t need to be smartphones. They’re accessible everywhere. And so how can we think of simple, but yet powerful applications of that to help people?

Kirkpatrick: That must be challenging, though, in all the languages and all the different ways of expression that are needed. How do you localize that?

Hsiang: By prioritizing localization. I spent a number of years at Google in the early days, and a big thing was when you were ready to launch a product, it needed to be ready in 15–20 languages off the bat to be able to reach the 90-plus percent of the world. And in this case, it’s developing custom programs in the areas that we want to go into.

Kirkpatrick: I hope you two can talk more. I bet you guys can think of some interesting things to do. And there’s a bunch of stuff we want to come back to.

Roy, as a doctor, you’re thinking, again, very globally. When you think about the situation we’re in with what we have available in technology and the health of the world, as it stands now, what do you see as our biggest opportunity and our biggest challenge?

Smythe: There are a lot of opportunities and a lot of challenges. I would like to start out by saying that in the little preamble that was written for this session, which was very well-written. I’m assuming you did that. But it does say that the world is the healthiest it’s ever been. And I actually take a little issue with that, because despite the fact that a couple of vectors are going off in different directions. One, obviously, is in the medically developed world, a rapidly aging population and in the medically developing world, the world in general, growing population, period. Both of which are outstripping traditional healthcare delivery. And if you look at that first vector of an aging population, what we now know is that 20 percent of individuals around the world have five or more chronic conditions. And the increase in lifespan, which has been significant since 1900—actually significant since the 1990s, about six years added to lifespan globally—that adding to the lifespan has actually created a lot of people that are living with chronic disease. And it was already mentioned previously about the outbreak of preventable and chronic disease around the world. Seventy percent of the world’s disease now, is preventable and chronic.

Kirkpatrick: Seventy percent is preventable?

Smythe: So while mortality has improved and lifespan has improved, we’re creating a situation where quality of life based on health actually is declining slightly, globally. And so it’s a question of which of those things you think is more important: living longer or living with quality health. I would like to say they both are, and so both things need to be tackled.

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