By Caroline Roan, MPA, and Krishna Udayakumar, MD, MBA
Since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, companies across the globe have had to adapt their business models to overcome profound disruptions caused by today’s global health crisis. The simple act of buying groceries has new safety protocols, supply chains have suffered across sectors, and in the U.S. alone e-commerce sales soared late last year by nearly 40% annually.
Looking ahead, despite the availability of new vaccines and therapies, many uncertainties remain. This is particularly true in low- and middle-income countries, where access to quality health services remains limited. The impact of continued disruptions may be devastating – the lives of 6,000 children could be lost per day from preventable causes if the pandemic continues to overwhelm health systems.
However, this moment of crisis is also one of opportunity, especially for social entrepreneurs committed to positive social impact and improving health at the grassroots level.
Since 2016, the Global Health Innovations Grants (GHIG) initiative has been helping social entrepreneurs in low-resource settings through multiple cycles of non-dilutive funding. Supported by The Pfizer Foundation* and managed in partnership with Innovations in Healthcare, a nonprofit hosted by Duke University, the GHIG program aims to accelerate community-based health innovations with stronger evidence to inform scale and sustainability.
Delivering vital health services to communities in low-resource settings – where there can be limited infrastructure, transportation difficulties, unreliable power sources, and shifting political landscapes – can be challenging. Even before Covid-19, many of the organizations supported through the GHIG initiative were making efforts to integrate new technologies within national health systems and increase access to quality healthcare for the hardest-to-reach populations.
How these entrepreneurial GHIG partners responded to today’s crisis has created practical lessons relevant for both digital innovators and businesses alike.
Adapt Use Cases for Evolving Need
Locally driven organizations and entrepreneurs understand the challenges of health delivery in their communities and are often able to identify and respond quickly to changing needs more effectively.
THINKMD uses technology and digital clinical decision-support platforms to increase the capacity of health care workers and improve access and quality of care in Nigeria. In the face of the current global health emergency and in the absence of widely available clinical diagnostics, THINKMD quickly developed a Covid-19 clinic support tool to guide health care workers through a Covid-19 risk assessment. This has enabled them to provide an immediate and distinct diagnosis for febrile diseases – an essential service when fever is a baseline symptom for many conditions detrimental to child health, including Covid-19.
Build Solutions for a Post-Pandemic World
In February, as the first African countries started reporting Covid-19 cases, governments quickly mounted tailored response plans and public health measures. Many governments within these countries have deep experience in infectious disease control and cultivated surveillance systems to manage outbreaks.
Liberia is one of these countries. In 2015, the country defeated the largest Ebola outbreak in history, and there is strong institutional memory of effective epidemic control interventions among its government, population, and health agencies, including Last Mile Health.
Last Mile Health collaborates with governments to design and bolster teams of digitally empowered community and frontline health care workers serving remote communities in Liberia. This has led to the screening and treatment of more than 1.3 million cases of childhood pneumonia, malaria, diarrheal disease, and malnutrition, and supported nearly 370,000 pregnancy visits, as of December 2020.
Building on their community-driven model, Last Mile Health was able to quickly support the Government of Liberia’s Covid-19 response by leveraging the community health care workforce to prevent, detect, and respond to the coronavirus, while ensuring uninterrupted access to primary health services for rural and remote communities.
Leverage Existing and New Partnerships
Reaching vulnerable communities, such as women and their families living in the informal urban settlements of India, requires trained and trusted community health care workers. But no organization can address its community’s needs comprehensively, making partnerships critically important, especially during times of crisis.
In Mumbai, the nonprofit organization Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA) partners to build effective solutions and empower women and their families to improve their health. By incorporating Covid-19 prevention into SNEHA’s efforts, they have helped to ensure that even during a pandemic, pregnant women living in these communities continue to use public health services and gain access to treatments for life-threatening diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, and typhoid.
Learning from Innovative Local-Born Solutions
Covid-19 has exacerbated inequalities around the world, revealing the shortcomings of health care delivery systems. But there is much to be learned from the innovative solutions of social enterprises that quickly pivot when new challenges arise.
1. Fail fast and adapt. Deliberately capture high-quality data in real time to be more responsive in an evolving crisis and learn from each success and failure.
2. Build for the future. Invest in interoperability across systems from the initial stages of development in order to create greater potential for expanded, scaled, and sustainable implementation in the future.
3. Partner for the skills you need. When taking on a project in a new area, leverage partnerships to gain access to the skills and competencies needed for success.
4. Commit to ongoing dialogue. Data informs new insights that can be replicated across broader public health services. It is important to share lessons learned – good and bad – to inform future investments.
In this ever-changing health landscape, adaptability is key. Social entrepreneurs must prioritize, define, monitor, and measure the challenges they experience to pivot their business models and meet the needs of the communities they serve.
Local innovators who are experienced in their field have clear visions, unique motivations and deep contextual knowledge to drive and implement new interventions. These entrepreneurs are, and will continue to be, key to ending this pandemic and ensuring a more equitable society, where everyone can access the health care they need.
To learn more about the most recent cohort of GHIG programs, visit Pfizer.com.
About the Authors/Disclosures
Caroline Roan is Chief Sustainability Officer, Pfizer Inc. and President, The Pfizer Foundation*. She oversees Pfizer’s Global Health & Social Impact (GH&SI) efforts, from stakeholder engagement and reporting, to the design of global social investment strategies. During her tenure, Pfizer has refined its GH&SI strategy to better support the company’s evolving business priorities and society’s needs. The resulting portfolio is a coordinated approach to strategic philanthropy and responsible investment which enables the full scope of the company’s resources to broaden access to its medicines and vaccines and strengthen healthcare delivery for underserved people around the world.
Dr. Krishna Udayakumar is the Founding Director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, focused on generating deeper evidence and support for the study, scaling, and adaptation of health innovations and policy reforms globally. He is also Executive Director of Innovations in Healthcare, a non-profit co-founded by Duke, McKinsey & Company, and the World Economic Forum, leading the organization’s work to curate and scale the impact of transformative health solutions globally. Innovations in Healthcare is a recipient of support from The Pfizer Foundation*.
*The Pfizer Foundation is a charitable organization established by Pfizer Inc. It is a separate legal entity from Pfizer Inc. with distinct legal restrictions. The Foundation’s mission is to promote access to quality healthcare, to nurture innovation, and to support the community involvement of Pfizer colleagues.