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Health Equity through Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Healthcare innovation and entrepreneurship continues to be a growing proportion of the entrepreneurship world, with $17B raised for healthcare ventures in 2020. However, the voices of women, minorities, rural communities and the underserved are still underrepresented as founders in this industry. These groups must be included not only to create successful ventures, but successful ventures that address critical health equity needs within these communities.

Article contributor Dr. Wiljeana Glover

Let’s explore how health needs among particular patient populations, i.e., health inequities, are impacting health in the U.S. and how innovation and entrepreneurship is a powerful tool in the fight against inequity. For the healthcare entrepreneur, the following presents reasons why you should consider directly addressing health equity issues through your products and services: the urgency of the need, the currently favorable funding environment and examples of women and minorities that are making great progress in the field. For the general entrepreneur, the following hopefully presents motivation to join the fight by encouraging and supporting women and minority healthcare entrepreneurs or becoming one yourself.

Defining and prioritizing health equity

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity defines health equity as reducing and ultimately eliminating disparities in health and its determinants that adversely affect excluded or marginalized groups. Thus, health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be healthy. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments and health care.

The United States (U.S.) ranks 34th in life expectancy at birth among developed countries, with life expectancy varying based on race, gender and location. For example, Dr. Charlotte Azaela Wallace, Chief Resident at Indiana University School of Medicine, died during childbirth. She is unfortunately representative of the fact that black women are 3.3 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. Furthermore, it is estimated that 5 percent of U.S. patients account for nearly half of the country’s health care expenditures; these patients have multiple comorbidities and often live at or below the poverty line. From these examples, we can see that healthcare in the U.S. will improve significantly when healthcare for minorities and the poor improves.

The role of innovation and entrepreneurship

While health equity has traditionally been considered the purview of public health experts, it is becoming clearer that health equity will not be achieved without innovation and entrepreneurship. USAID’s Center for Innovation and Impact reports a $371 billion annual investment gap by 2030 from achieving the health Sustainable Development Goals in low and middle income settings; this gap will not be filled without private investment. Thus, multiple funders, from the Gates Foundation to JP Morgan Chase are heavily investing in the proliferation of health product, process, and service innovations and entrepreneurial ventures in the U.S. and abroad.

There are a growing number of designers, innovators, and entrepreneurs that are not only incorporating health equity in their work, but are using health equity as a competitive advantage, reaching markets and populations that have traditionally been unserved. In fact, many of the growing healthcare enterprises by women and minorities have some component of health equity. For example, Digital Health Advisory Services lists 97 black-owned health tech businesses, many of which are owned by women and focus specifically on designing services that are more accessible for minority patients. Rhia Ventures is a women-led impact venture capital firm that invests in reproductive health startups that promise to revolutionize women’s health.

The future of health equity

As individuals address inequities within their sphere of influence, new products, services and systems will emerge that will be beneficial for individuals that have been previously overlooked by our existing models of care. New ventures founded by women and minorities may prove to have a distinctive competitive advantage to addressing some of our most pressing health issues because of their unique market orientation and understanding of these issues. By prioritizing health equity, innovators and entrepreneurs have the power to transform inequitable structures within our current health systems over time, creating more accessible and effective healthcare for all.

About the author

Wiljeana Glover, Ph.D. is the Steven C. and Carmella R. Kletjian Foundation Distinguished Professor in Global Healthcare Entrepreneurship and an Associate Professor of Technology, Operations, and Information Management. She is also the Founding Faculty Director of the Kerry Healey Center for Global Healthcare Entrepreneurship. Professor Glover studies the use of healthcare improvement and innovation practices to achieve more effective, efficient and equitable care via hosptials and health startups. Professor Glover completed her postdoctoral studies at the Lean Advancement Initiative at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Ph.D. and M.S. in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech, B.S. in Industrial and Systems Engineering at Georgia Tech, and B.A. in Mathematics at Albany State University (GA). For more information, please visit her website.