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Transforming Women’s Health Will Take Heightened Awareness and 21st Century Innovation

group of panel speakers
From left to right: Dr. Leana Wen, George Washington University professor and former president of Planned Parenthood, Christy Turlington Burns, founder of the non-profit Every Mother Counts, Dr. Naveen Rao, Senior Vice President for Health Initiative of The Rockefeller Foundation, and moderator Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global. PHOTO CREDIT: Benjamin Esakof/Halo Creative Group, LLC for TIME.

Last month, I had the opportunity to join a passionate panel of advocates and experts at the inaugural TIME 100 Health Summit, to discuss both the strategy and urgency needed to transform women’s health. I walked away with the overarching feeling that our ability to improve women’s health outcomes depends on our will to do so, as much as it depends on the health tools and services that we must make available to all women.

The world still loses more than 800 women each day to complications in pregnancy and childbirth, making the act of giving life the most dangerous thing a woman can do, despite the fact that the vast majority of these complications are preventable. About 99% of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Our moderator Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global reminded us that at heart, we think and talk about women’s health differently, noting the many ways women’s health is often politicized or deprioritized, while men’s health is simply referred to as “health” and not treated in the same manner.  

My fellow panelist Dr. Leana Wen, George Washington University professor and former president of Planned Parenthood, called out the dire situation in the U.S. and encouraged us to focus on expanding care to all.

The implications of this crisis radiate outward into communities. For every woman who dies in childbirth, roughly 20 others suffer from serious injuries, infections, and disabilities. The health of mothers has always been a measure of a health system’s strength−outlined as a core performance indicator by WHO, however, we’re currently not on track to meet our Sustainable Development Goals, especially the necessary 80% reduction in the global maternal mortality rate (MMR) by 2030.

In the United States, nearly two-thirds of maternal deaths occur outside of labor, delivery or the postpartum period, whereas in low- and middle-income countries the overwhelming majority of maternal deaths occur within this window. These differences illustrate a need for us to design highly nuanced and context-specific interventions to help address this problem.

Systems that do not consider social and environmental factors−whether they be race, income or access to transportation and nutrition−perpetuate inequities in health outcomes, costs, and information sharing. To truly improve the health of mothers and women, we need to see the full picture. We must understand the challenges, blind spots, and biases that prevent us from designing and implementing care that addresses a woman’s full experience.

One solution lies in the smart application of data and technology. My other fellow panelist, Christy Turlington Burns, founder of the non-profit Every Mother Counts, drew our attention to the potential impact that simple technology solutions can have.

We’ve yet to fully leverage the technological innovations that other industries have already developed to inspire behavior change and motivate stakeholders to engage with the problem. In our modern world, digital technologies abound, however, their use has not been prioritized for the health of all people.

This is why The Rockefeller Foundation has launched a new Precision Public Health Initiative, to bring the benefits of data science innovation to community health workers around the world−with the goal of saving at least 6 million lives over the next decade. The work has begun in two countries−India and Uganda, with plans to expand to eight additional countries over time. Our focus remains on leveraging technological resources to bend the health curve toward equity.

Increasing predictive analytics use, data sharing and workforce strengthening could reduce the maternal deaths and rampant biases that Leana and Christy reminded us of. Generating new data insights could help health care providers and decision-makers strengthen weak preventative care, an area that Arianna cites as a major cause of chronic stress and suffering.

Our discussion made clear to me that we have an unprecedented chance and incredible potential to help write our health history, for the better. We’ve reached a crossroads for women’s health. Years from now, will we be proud to say that we chose to use our wealth of resources for equity? Or will we choose to let half of our population fall farther behind?

To read more about the potential for data science to improve maternal health, please see the corresponding piece in TIME.

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