Revolutionizing Health Care and Research in the Developing World
Monday, April 28, 2008 / 4:00 pm - 5:15 pm

Carol Lin, Founder and CEO, Cancer Social Network

Tomas Philipson, Professor, Irving B. Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, University of Chicago; Senior Fellow, Milken Institute
Eugene Williams, Chairman, Translational Medicine India
Anne Wojcicki, Co-Founder, 23andMe Inc.
Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 2006; Managing Director, Grameen Bank

Panelists discussed the provision of health care to the very poor in developing countries, particularly Bangladesh and India. All agreed with moderator Carol Lin of the Cancer Social Network, who said in her opening remarks, "It takes money to get health care."

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus discussed the state of health care in Bangladesh, where he founded Grameen Bank, making small loans to poor people — 97% of whom are women — to start their own micro-enterprises. "Income is the best medicine," Yunus stated.

He described prevalent health problems in Bangladesh and the tactics that the Grameen Bank has used to address them. For instance, night blindness among children was a major problem caused by vitamin A deficiency, a problem that has typically been addressed by providing supplements. Grameen Bank decided to sell seeds to families so that they could grow their own vitamin-rich vegetables, eliminating the risk of deficiencies and allowing the families to sell the surplus. Night blindness vanished (and Grameen became the number one seed-seller in Bangladesh).

Grameen Bank has also been involved in working to address water shortages, the need for sustainable housing, sanitation and malnutrition, all of which are major sources of health problems in Bangladesh as well as in other developing countries. Through joint "social business ventures" with private companies such as Dannon and Veolia Water, Grameen has been able to tackle childhood malnutrition and arsenic in well water, respectively. As Yunus put it, "Health is not just medicine coming from a doctor; health is something that you build."

That is exactly what Grameen Bank has been doing through such social business projects with private partners and its new health-insurance program, which allows members of Grameen communities to pay premiums of $1.50 for primary-care services and telemedicine (telephone consultations with doctors, made possible by the expansion of technology). Yunus hopes to see other private and public enterprises venture out of the profit-maximization model and into the world of social businesses to alleviate global poverty.

Eugene Williams of Translational Medicine India addressed the issue of sustainability of programs and services for the poor. These cannot be provided solely as charity, since that model is not self-sustainable. He believes that the poor must participate in health services by paying for it, even in small amount. When asked what he sees as a tangible outcome in 25 years, Williams stated that he would like to see "a health-care system in the developing world that we wish we had in the United States, with continuous improvement and sustainability."

Tomas Philipson of the University of Chicago directed attention to the problems of delivery, which he said are more important than the availability of technology. The costs of delivery must be considered in any viable solution to providing health care in developing countries. He remarked that profit motives are very important to the development of health care and research in the developing world, and financial rewards should be present for those that seek opportunities to contribute to this work.

Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe is interested in collaboration with organizations such as Grameen Bank to improve the quality of health care globally. Through such collaborations, a global community can be created to direct the revolution in health care in the developing world.

The question of whether for-profit companies can effectively participate in developing world programs came up in the discussion. For the panelists, the answer seemed to be a matter of the design and intent of the for-profit's participation. For instance, Wojcicki stated that if 23andMe were to take on a project in India or Bangladesh, it would not have a for-profit purpose. It would be separate from the profit centers of the company, but take advantage of those entities' capabilities and knowledge. Yunus stressed the importance of maintaining profits within the "social business" and eliminating shareholders that could influence the work of such a venture.

When asked what she sees as a tangible outcome for the future, Wojcicki replied with a plan for her own company. She stated that 23andMe wants to work with global development organizations such as Grameen Bank to identify the most pressing health issue in the developing world and begin tackling it.