A Hopeful Prognosis: The Large and Growing Ecosystem of Black & Latinx Healthcare Disruptors

Hidden Healthcare Figures

“We don’t know any.” That is the oft heard refrain from decision-makers who would like to build more diverse and inclusive companies, but find it challenging to identify highly qualified job candidates from underrepresented groups. The healthcare and wellness space is not immune to this refrain. However, as many people learned at this year’s Culture Shifting Weekend Silicon Valley (CSW), there are thousands of innovative professionals of color in the healthcare industry who are leveraging technology to benefit the health and wellness of individuals across our nation, and around the world.

The historic Think/Action Tank assembled the largest-ever cohort of senior Black and Latinx healthcare innovators, technologists and disruptors in the country. The theme of the CSW Think/Action Tank was Inclusive Health & Wellness Innovation, with a focus on access, diagnosis and treatment. Sponsored by Dignity Health and LinkedIn, and in partnership with Babson Social Innovation Lab, the Think/Action Tank facilitated an exchange of new ideas critical to fostering more inclusive technology and solutions that turn challenges into growth opportunities.

With more than 60 accomplished Black and Latinx healthcare leaders in attendance and a wide variety of corporate executives eager to contribute, the panelists and speakers presented solutions and in-depth expertise that impressed executives from the Gates Foundation, Morgan Stanley, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Oracle, VMware, EY, SAP, Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente and many other organizations.

Improving the U.S. Healthcare Ranking

The U.S. ranks 37th on the World Health Organization’s list of National Health Systems, but not because of the quality of care for those at the very top. As a nation, we have failed to build a sustainable approach for delivering health and wellness to all. As a health system, the U.S. approach is weak at developing and adopting solutions that address the health needs of diverse communities.

During the event, internationally renowned health researchers mixed with corporate bankers; Big Pharma brainstormed with community-level health and wellness innovators. Digital commerce giants shared ideas with healthcare visionaries. The common denominator of these conversations was the building of a more inclusive U.S. healthcare system, as numerous studies show that individuals from communities of color experience far-below-average healthcare outcomes when engaging with the current healthcare system. But as Dr. Jacques Kponodu, MD a Harvard Medical School cardiac and thoracic surgeon and healthcare disruptor pointed out, “Many of the solutions that are for underserved communities can actually be applied to all communities, even the wealthiest of zip codes.”

The Think/Action Tank was moderated by Dr. Michael Penn, Founder and CEO of Penn Consulting Partners. Dr. Penn is highly regarded for integrating diversity and inclusion strategies into all of his work. His background includes helping advance innovations in drug development at leading biotech and healthcare companies.

Dr. Penn observed that, “The present technology and healthcare verticals don’t fully capture the transformative impact of diversity and inclusion-based innovation methodology. In particular, patients, physicians and entrepreneurs of color are often left out of the innovation equation. For example, Black and Latinx patients represent less than 10 percent of those participating in clinical trials; and the numbers of entrepreneurs and investors in healthcare is vastly smaller.”

Panelist Asha Collins, PhD, Head of U.S. Country Clinical Trials at Genentech, discussed one possible solution: “The collaboration of seemingly disparate people and groups: One of the key trends in Silicon Valley and biotech innovation is regular, higher-order scaling of collaboration — connecting non-overlapping people and groups (such as community organizations) around solving challenging problems. It’s important to adapt this approach to healthcare by developing investable ideas and enabling the launch of sustainable new companies focused on solving healthcare’s most challenging problems: namely health disparities associated with race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.”

Dr. Collins added, “It’s necessary to expand an emerging community of leading investors, healthcare institutions, foundations, family offices, community leaders, activists, citizens, patient advocates and diverse entrepreneurs focused on building new, or leveraging existing technologies, to address well-defined healthcare challenges for underserved populations.”

The afternoon’s fireside chat was renowned neurosurgeon and numerous patent-holder, Dr. Keith Black, who described how 47 percent of adults age 85 or older will contract Alzheimer’s. Dr. Black explained the new technology he’s working on for identifying the disorder at its earliest stages: “Alzheimer’s has tremendous impact on the patient’s family and the loved ones; and the financial impact is roughly $200 billion per year and going to $20 trillion by 2050. As I researched it, I saw an opportunity for early detection, because the disease first starts in your forties and fifties; and you become symptomatic in your seventies and eighties. The technology we’ve developed is a noninvasive way of looking through the back of the eye at the brain tissue to detect abnormalities. We hope to make this widespread screening test available in every optometrist’s office, so we can detect the early warning signs and begin instituting treatment early.”

Possibilities for Shifting Healthcare Culture

The Think/Action Tank was filled with numerous examples of such illuminating and revolutionary technologies ̶ medical advances that can potentially benefit millions of people around the globe. However, as a Fast Company study pointed out, only 5% of venture funding went to women in 2015 and 1% went to African-Americans. Despite those abysmal numbers, entrepreneurs like Abner Mason are using technology such as natural language processing and machine learning to bridge the gap between healthcare (which has not kept pace with America’s changing demographics) and America becoming a “majority minority” country. The result of that gap is poor outcomes for everyone and rising costs.

Abner’s company, ConsejoSano (Healthy Advice in Spanish), works with the Latino Medicaid population through culture, language and preferred modes of communication. “First we connect culturally. We try to reach people where they are, as who they are, to build trusted relationships, so we can get people in for care; and to do it at scale. The people we work with are poor and it’s hard to access healthcare when you’re poor. If we’re going to move the dial on healthcare in the U.S., we need to leverage technology to help the poorest people, and we need to fund more people who reflect the country.”

Dr. Penn summed up the Think/Action Tank with one word: “Possibilities.” I concur. We have endless possibilities in front of us, and they are as inspiring as the problems facing us are daunting. Solving healthcare in this country is not like trying to wrestle an elephant, it’s like trying to wrestle a T-Rex. But if we combine our forces, as Collins and Penn pointed out, we have a strong chance of curing the severely ailing patient, namely U.S. healthcare. The new technology that we can use to treat the symptoms include creating the type of virtuous and novel circle that brings together stakeholders who don’t yet know each other, and that is what the Think/Action Tank was about.

Moving forward, it will take action from all of us to make the structural changes necessary. To that end, Dr. Penn, Dr. Collins and I will soon be announcing a new venture that seeks to help improve U.S Healthcare by leveraging the nation’s largest ecosystem of Black and Latinx doctors, healthcare and healthcare-related tech disruptors. This venture will also help organizations like Google Ventures, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Gates Foundation to find and fund these brilliant hidden figures.

Photos courtesy of Culture Shift Labs