Magnifying Health Impact With Tech and Innovation

Joseph Gates

Project Associate

On June 15, leaders from the global health and technology sectors convened in Washington DC to discuss perhaps the most important question confronting public health in the developing world in the years to come: How can global health programs successfully integrate the innovative approach and cutting edge technology of Silicon Valley into their own activities to magnify their impact on health outcomes?

Of course, there is no single correct answer to such a broad and multifaceted question. But the discussions at the Innovation Effect, hosted by PATH, shed light on several key issues related to innovation and spurred those in attendance to reflect on how they are applying these concepts in their own projects and how they could incorporate them further.

For my part, I was heartened to find several aspects of the USAID-funded Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) Project’s activities that corresponded with the innovative vision outlined by speakers at the event.

One key theme from the event centered on the nature of innovation itself. Both Tom Frieden, Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Ariel Pablos-Mendez, Assistant Administrator for Global Health & Child and Maternal Survival Coordinator at USAID emphasized that often the most important innovations are not the great technological leaps forward characteristic of Silicon Valley, but rather incremental changes to processes over time. And what better example of such a model of innovation is there than the LMG Project, a follow-on project incorporating 30 years of expertise on leadership, management, and governance into its current approach? From the Leadership Development Program Plus to the Women’s Institute on Leadership and Disability facilitators’ guide to name only a few examples, the LMG Project has embraced the idea of gradual innovation by investing in tools and projects that are regularly updated to incorporate lessons learned over time.

Another theme of the event—the incredible potential of online platforms to leverage global health resources and promote positive health outcomes—took center stage during the panel featuring representatives from such tech firms as the Tableau Foundation, Dimagi, and Facebook. Again, the message that the presenters emphasized is not lost on the LMG Project, which has developed interactive, online tools such as the HIV/AIDS Provincial Planning Simulator (HAPPS), LeaderNet, and the PEPFAR Management Dashboard for just this reason. The LMG Project has also utilized existing platforms and social networks in its work. Most notably, it incorporated the social network WhatsApp into the peer support networking component of the LMG for Midwifery Managers course, which allowed the midwives to “share updates, personal accomplishments, and project achievements” to “expand their support networks and continually build upon their existing knowledge” more effectively than they could via email alone.

In the event’s final panel, policy experts from a range of organizations put forth their ideas to operationalize the innovative approaches described throughout the day. While each participant’s talk was captivating, IREX CEO Kristin Lord’s stood out in its pertinence to the LMG Project’s activities. Her comments focused on the vital role of developing human potential as a catalyst for innovation, pointing to the projected youth bulge in Africa not as a looming problem, but as an emerging opportunity to foster the next generation of innovators. Viewed from that perspective, the role that the LMG Project plays in cultivating leadership, management, and governance skills in low- and middle-income countries should be seen not only as strengthening health systems today, but also laying the groundwork for public health innovation in the years to come.

Overall, I came away from the Innovation Effect event with the assurance that the LMG Project was incorporating many of the innovation-based approaches discussed by the day’s speakers. But if there is any central message from events focusing on innovation, it is that innovation is never over. Processes, approaches, and technology can and must be improved continuously if the ambitious sustainable development goals are to be realized. Keeping the mantra of ceaseless innovation in mind will be essential to the LMG Project’s legacy and to those projects harnessing the leadership, management, and governance tools it has developed.