With just one day to go until the inaugural HITLAB Innovators Summit, we asked the event’s chair, Dr. Abdulrahman M El-Sayed, to share some of his thoughts on today’s healthcare challenges, health and technology, and his field of expertise in epidemiology.

Get to know all about our Summit chair, and join us on Monday at the HITLAB Innovators Summit.

What got you interested in health and technology?

The rapid growth in technology is the hallmark of the past 20 years—one of the most important and unique facets of 21st century life. In that respect, to ignore its implications for human health would be to ignore the role of one of the most important, ubiquitous aspects of the social environment. As a social epidemiologist—a scientist interested in how society shapes health, technology and its roles are incredibly interesting and important.

What drives you to be so passionate about your particular field?

Society is always changing, parsing us out, and shaping our lives. We often ignore that because we’re part of it: it’s hard to step out of our norms and think about how they influence us. But there’s no doubt that they do. Society shapes how we interact, where we interact, with what we interact, who has, who doesn’t, and ultimately who lives and who dies, of what, how, and when. As a health scientist, understanding that—and ideally, understanding how to shape that, has tremendous potential for improving human lives. More importantly, there’s an equity component there that drives me. Our society becomes increasingly unequal everyday—and being a part of mitigating the effects of that inequality on human lives is, to me, among the most important goals in which someone can invest. 

What do you think is the most exciting health innovation or HIT trend now?

The cell phone. I know it’s old technology, but its ubiquity makes it tremendously exciting. Now, turning that phone into a) a tool for health, b) a tool to collect good health information, and c) a tool that spreads health information is what so much of the health IT space is about these days. In terms of addressing health inequalities, the fact that nearly everyone has a cell phone, and many have smart phones has the potential to make a real, lasting dent in health inequalities in the US and globally.

What do you believe are the most important global healthcare challenges today?

The most important healthcare challenge today are the market failures that prevent those who suffer the greatest burden of disease, but who also cannot pay for these services, from getting the goods and care that they need. The problem scales, from the low income urban neighborhoods in the US to slums in India and South Africa. We need a robust support system to help address them. A perfect example is the Ebola epidemic—market failures prevented the development of a vaccine, medications, and ultimately, a robust, swift response before the problem was well out of hand. 

What do you think are the best ways and practices to approach them?

It’s clear that we need strong investments in public sector support of healthcare—institutions like the CDC, NIH, and FDA. They need to be adequately funded, agile, unconflicted by associations with industry, and efficient. Economics teaches us that we rely on the public sector to fill the gaps where markets fail us. I think technology can be a useful tool in this respect for a couple of reasons. For example, many of these public sector institutions have struggled to demonstrate why they are so important to the average citizen. Technology can help if leveraged to move information out to everyday people about how these institutions are serving us, even when operating behind the scenes. 

What would be your vision for health innovation for the future?

Scalability: I dream of health innovations that can help the poorest in our communities—that can support us collectively, not just those of us who are fortunate enough to have the means to buy them. Thinking, then about scalability and penetration should be at the forefront of the process of innovation.  

More about Dr. El-Sayed

As a Population Health Scientist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University, Dr. El-Sayed directs Columbia University’s Systems Science Program and co-directs the Global Research Analytics in Population Health initiative. His research considers the interactions between society and health, health disparities, and the uses of simulation modeling in epidemiology. He has published over 40 peer-reviewed scientific articles, commentaries and book chapters, and has been featured at national and international conferences.

Dr. El-Sayed earned a DPhil in Population Health from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and an MD from Columbia University as a Soros Fellow and Medical Scientist Training Program Fellow. He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Michigan with Highest Distinction in Biology and Political Science.

Dr. El-Sayed is also Fellow at Dēmos, a non-partisan public policy center. His commentary, which has been featured in The New York Times, CNN, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian, and Huffington Post, engages conversations about healthy policy, with a particular focus on disease prevention in light of health trends. He is also a regular commentator on public health and medical issues at Al Jazeera America.