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Design and Investment Equity in Health Innovation: Takeaways from Aspen Ideas: Health

Social innovation in healthcare is at a precipice. Can it rise to the challenge of meaningfully improving health systems and furthering health equity?
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Katie Drasser (left), CEO of RockHealth.org, Monique Smith (center), Founding Executive Director, Health DesignED at Emory University and Tsion Ghedamu (right), Senior Program Manager at The Aspen Institute at Aspen Ideas: Health

This year, Johnson & Johnson Global Community Impact (J&J GCI) attended the Aspen Ideas: Health festival to hear from leading health stakeholders and uplift and engage with health impact entrepreneurs and innovators who are working to strengthen health systems and improve care. Among the health impact entrepreneurs in attendance were the Aspen Healthy Communities fellows, who brought their unique expertise and life experiences to offer new perspectives on global health innovation. Check out our previous post about some of this year’s cohort members to learn more.

During the festival, Tsion Ghedamu, Senior Program Manager at the Aspen Institute, sat down with two health innovators and friends of J&J GCI: Katie Drasser and Monique Smith. Katie Drasser is the CEO of RockHealth.org, where she uses her expertise to drive innovations towards a more equitable digital health future. Monique Smith is the executive director of Health DesignED: The Acute Care Design and Innovation Center at Emory University, where she designs new systems in healthcare to make acute care more accessible and equitable. Smith is also an Aspen Healthy Communities Fellow.

We talked with them about their takeaways about the state of health care innovation.

Tsion: What are your takeaways about the current state of healthcare innovation? What have you learned from Aspen Ideas: Health?

Monique: We stand and have stood at the precipice of a real opportunity, an opportunity that remains untapped.

Healthcare is far too often not designed for seven out of ten Americans; we’re not designing healthcare for women, we’re not designing for people of color, we’re not designing for the LGBTQ+ community and so forth. We have to think about what innovation means, and for me, that’s a lot of reparative innovation.

Innovators at the forefront are thinking about all the ways health systems, and all the things that surround health systems, are able to provide the best well-being that an individual can have, which might include your ability to access food, your ability to access transport or your ability to be safe. Those are things that actually are an important part of access when you talk about healthcare – not just hospitals, not just clinics, not just the places and buildings that we go. And that’s what innovation stands to do. So, when we think about innovating within healthcare, reparative innovation is going to be revolutionary.

Katie, what do you think?

Katie: I would say, what is innovation? It’s not innovation if it doesn’t have equity. Period. Full stop. I’m encouraged by the leaders we met here, and some of what you’re doing, Monique and what we’re doing at Rock Health, of finding innovation not just at the edges but being central to business models, central to strategies and central to priorities. It goes without saying, the more of that, the better. You can’t have innovation without it. And I think that’s been really key to hear over the last few days.

Monique: Yes! And the numbers match that. When you think about the buying power, you’re talking about 80% of the buying power being the population we intentionally center in design. And that’s a huge takeaway. It’s clear that we have an opportunity there – there’s a market need that social enterprises can seize.

Katie: Building off of that, when you look at the investment side, we know there’s an imbalance of who is getting capital investments. From 2021 Rock Health data, for example, we know that approximately 50% of digital health companies are women, but of the $29B that flowed to digital health entrepreneurs, only 13% of those dollars actually flowed to women CEOs. And that’s just women. That doesn’t even get into Black and Latinx women CEOs who are innovating in this space - and definitely are not getting enough funding. That’s a problem that I think, again, a lot of people here at the festival are working to correct. I know that we wake up every day trying to shift that number.

Tsion: And that’s why these conversations are so important. Seeing leaders and innovators who share the same goal of building a more equitable and healthier world come together to collaborate and share their ideas and insights is exciting and inspiring. Thank you, Monique and Katie, for taking the time to speak with me!

Across festival sessions and during conversations between presentations, the theme of intentionally supporting health innovation with a deliberate lens on equity rose to the top. For more insights on Aspen Ideas: Health, check out J&J Executive Vice President of Global Corporate Affairs Vanessa Broadhurst’s reflections.

This interview was edited for clarity.