Building Bridges in a New Global Health Landscape

6/4/12

[Editor's note: This article is adapted from a speech given at PATH’s annual Breakfast for Global Health on May 22, 2012.]

Today I begin a new chapter in my life as president and CEO of the global health organization PATH. Why has this business and social entrepreneur, IP attorney, and human rights activist made this leap? Because I believe strongly in the need to build bridges to tackle one of the most important issues of our time: ensuring that health is within reach for everyone. And because PATH plays the role of bridge-builder so well.

This bridge-building role will be even more vital in this decade of change in global health. Major new trends and forces are shaping an increasingly complex landscape, which will require PATH and other organizations to adjust our approaches. These trends include the shift away from traditional programmatic silos (such as HIV/AIDS or malaria) and an urgent need to integrate health with education and development. Another trend is the dramatic shift in approaches to development aid—away from an export-driven model to an import-driven model. Under these “localization policies,” developing countries have true ownership of solutions.

The world’s tremendous geopolitical shifts also bring forces of change to the global health environment. Emerging economies such as China, India, and Brazil are increasingly sources of innovation and capabilities that are transforming how technologies serve the poor around the globe. Another force to be leveraged is the rapidly changing dynamic between private, public, and nonprofit players. Never before have we seen this high level of engagement in global development by the private sector.

This environment calls for developing strong partnerships with private companies and leveraging relationships in countries like China and India to succeed on a large scale. It also requires being responsive to local community strategies, and embracing some of the changes that accompany many of these forces.

This is all in PATH’s DNA.

PATH excels in the development of a range of effective technology solutions—from malaria vaccines to clean water filters—as well as innovations in health systems, behavior change, advocacy, and public-private partnerships. This work straddles and knits together many of the necessary, but often siloed, pieces of the global health puzzle. PATH reached more than 74 million people with our health solutions in 2011, and we did it by collaborating with hundreds of partners across sectors and borders. This ability to innovate and engage across so many lines has led to major successes, such as the recent introduction of the MenAfriVac™ vaccine.

Creating a vaccine in record time and at record-low cost for a disease—meningitis A—that afflicts a particular swath of African countries required innovation, collaboration, and drive. The Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between PATH and the World Health Organization, met the challenge by creating a new model of vaccine development based on public-private partnership. The complex collaboration brought together public, private, and nonprofit entities with expertise in pharmaceutical development, vaccine manufacturing, clinical and laboratory work, and developing-country needs. Just over a year after its launch, 55 million Africans have been vaccinated with MenAfriVac™. Not a single case of meningitis A has been reported in those who were immunized.

This landmark success reflects a new way of working. And it’s hard to do.

Let me give you an example of what global health work looks like on the ground. A few years ago, I had the privilege of serving as interim director of PATH’s India program. One very hot, very long day, we started early in the morning with a trip to the largest urban slum in the world, on the outskirts of Mumbai. There we visited a clinic offering cervical cancer screening for women. Our next stop was with a vaccine manufacturer where we discussed research projects and challenges with clinical trials. Then we met with the state’s chief minister to talk about the policy and regulatory obstacles that were standing in the way of a critical new health technology. Finally, we met with a donor interested in improving health in her country.

Back at the office that evening, I had to ask: How much more could we do if we linked some of these programs together? Each effort is funded to achieve targeted goals. But there is so much opportunity to work across these efforts and address needs in a new and more comprehensive way. For example, if a woman comes to a clinic for cervical cancer screening, why can’t we offer her services for maternal health, too? Or why can’t we more effectively leverage our clinical trial network to evaluate other immunization programs?

That’s when I realized: many of the roads to better health are funded, but most of the bridges are not. In this complex environment of change, the ability to connect dots, link programs, and innovate at the margins is how we can have our greatest impact.

And that’s why I took this job—to ensure that PATH continues to be a bridge-builder and innovator on the global stage and to carry forward this work with an obsessive focus on sustainable impact.

Ultimately, to act effectively in the new landscape and to make these transformative leaps, we need to work in even more innovative ways with our partners: governments, the private sector, other organizations, individual donors, and philanthropists. Together, we can build the bridges that will deepen our impact.

Steve Davis is the president and CEO of PATH, the global health nonprofit based in Seattle. Follow @

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.

  • Nick

    Great article.  Really resonated with me given my recent experience in Bangladesh where we witnessed the need for bridge building and perhaps some moves towards laying the foundations for new bridges.  You can read about it here… http://drbosch.tumblr.com/