Last week, the Digital Health Institute for Transformation (DHIT) team traveled to Pittsboro, NC to Innovate Carolina’s newest location: 79º West. The team was joined in this newly built coworking space by innovators, educators, and entrepreneurs eager to immerse themselves in the digital health ecosystem. The main event of the evening was a fireside chat between DHIT CEO, Michael Levy, and Dr. Sean Sylvia of UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Dr. Sylvia is also the co-founder of Collective Good, an initiative dedicated to providing scalable health solutions to underserved communities. 

Check out the highlights below!

Dr. Sylvia’s background is unique – he classifies himself as a health economist and applies his expertise as an associate professor at the country’s top public school of global public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he teaches about the intersection of computational science and behavioral economics.

Dr. Sylvia began the conversation by highlighting some of his experiences abroad, most recently in China and Africa. He commented that nearly 40-60% of healthcare interactions in developing countries result in incorrect diagnoses and incorrect treatment. When asked where the state of the healthcare market in developing countries currently sits, Dr. Sylvia bluntly stated, “the same place we were,” noting that we have “a real opportunity for countries to accelerate the digital transformation of their health systems.”

The crux of the conversation was centered around “leap-frogging,” a concept defined by not needing to go through the same evolution we went through in high-income countries; rather, by leveraging low cost digital tools to build infrastructure that changes how developing countries deliver care. 

Leapfrogging through a historical lens can be defined by the adoption of cellular phones in developing countries. While the US began their telephone usage with landlines, developing countries bypassed this stage with mass adoption of cellular phones.

Levy added that the healthcare industry in the United States is on a “dying S-Curve” – a curve that depicts cost and capital against time. Companies in the US are focused on “What’s the biggest bang for our buck right now?” without much thought for reimagining the healthcare experience.

Dr. Sylvia emphasized the concept of leapfrogging in the healthcare space abroad by noting that other countries do not have the same constraints as the US. These constraints present themselves in terms of legacy systems, regulatory frameworks, and perverse incentives. He commented that “incentives in our health system actually disincentivize innovation in a lot of ways.”

Conversely, developing countries lack these incentives, these legacy systems, these barriers to entry. Africa, per Dr. Sylvia, “[is] kind of this laboratory where you can let 1,000 flowers bloom.” With some fundamental learning, Dr. Sylvia emphasized, the next generation of digital health technology can be adopted across vast geographies at rapid maturity rates.

Dr. Sylvia wrapped up by discussing the initiative he co-founded, Collective Good, which uses crowdsourced human validation to deliver more accurate diagnoses or even validate AI models. The idea for the initiative is simple: take some of the pre-existing Digital Health solutions and spin those into financially sustainable concepts. “That’s when you have the most impact – you can’t do that with (simple) research and grant funding.”

In his lab, Dr. Sylvia partners with local organizations to develop and roll out technologies that can be deployed in different settings – locally and abroad – to create a collective platform for global equity with a broad span of partners.

Many thanks to Dr. Sylvia for the engaging discussion; Innovate Carolina for the generous donation of their impressive new space, 79º West, as well as their sponsorship; and our vast ecosystem of partners for corralling around a shared vision of digital health transformation across our communities and around the globe.

Join us for our Next Happy Hour event on August 16th in Durham, NC at American Underground.

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Talk soon!