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As published on Fierce Pharma

Today, we find that people are living longer due to investments made in infectious diseases, therapies for non-communicable diseases, and better knowledge of how to manage chronic conditions. Yet, there are still great divides in who has access to care and therapeutics, which impacts quality of care now, and in the future, will impact progress made in health and wellness.

To close these gaps, we must reexamine the health ecosystem and determine what components that were once considered ancillary, are now mainstay (e.g., digital tools, use of Artificial Intelligence), and the roles of the various actors and stakeholders to determine if they are being leveraged – for example, the private sector (e.g., pharma, biotech, digital health companies).

A Greater Divide

The healthcare field is brimming with emerging technologies like AI, real-world data platforms, and digital tools. These advancements are projected to be a $504 billion market by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. The number of global health tech unicorns (startups with a valuation of over $1B USD) numbered 140 worldwide in 2023, with a collective value of more than $320B. In addition, Statista found that the global AI-in-healthcare market is expected to reach $45.2 billion by 2026.

Despite these significant investments in health technology, many health leaders are concerned that entire communities will be left behind if they lack the economic means or the right digital infrastructure. In essence, the growth of AI and other technologies could create an even greater digital divide: further exacerbating data gaps and leading to bias when applying AI for insights.

Glaring data and access gaps persistently undermine efforts to maximize health for all. For instance,  a University of Cincinnati study published last year found that residents in “digital deserts” have fewer healthcare options, with their plight getting worse as more services go online. According to the study, socially vulnerable US communities live in places with fewer healthcare resources and less access to broadband internet, which is now considered a “super determinant” of health because of its role in healthcare outcomes.

Recognizing that lack of research and evidence-based medicine and practice will lead to stark inequities in the actual healthcare delivered and accessed. In fact, the US Government’s National Institutes of Health held a summit in 2023 that focused on ways to advance collaborative models for building equality and equity in healthcare research. They concluded that “The United States needs to rethink its entire innovation ecosystem to incorporate equity as a foundational guiding principle—from research design and funding requirements to policies and regulations that govern the delivery and oversight of new products to the public.” (Wailoo et al, Embed equity throughout innovation | Science). Rethinking the ecosystem must include rethinking the technologies that are used, and how they are designed, tested, and scaled. Furthermore, the innovation ecosystem is a multi-actor state – private sector (industry), academia, non-governmental organizations, government, civil society, and more. There may be different roles for each when it comes to promulgating innovation but fundamentally, they must consider the needs of various populations.

Balancing Innovation with Inclusivity

Clayton Christensen, the architect of and the world’s foremost authority on disruptive innovation, writes that: “Innovations are shaped by people who invent, develop, produce, and adopt them. Thus, to ensure that the arc of innovation bends toward equity, all of us whose actions and choices influence innovation need to be ever mindful of whether we are steering innovations toward equity or maintaining the status quo.” (Advancing equity through innovation: a choice, not a guarantee – Forum for Growth – Harvard Business School (

This leaves us facing the fundamental question of: “How do we encourage innovation without slowing or stifling it, while also ensuring we embrace inclusivity?” The answer requires multi-stakeholder approaches where the private sector’s ingenuity is strategically aligned with an equity-first agenda from the outset.

Private Sector: Essential to Healthcare Innovation

Some of the most promising digital transformation efforts have involved joint developments between traditional health organizations and health tech firms. Such partnerships have resulted in AI products that improve the accuracy of imaging diagnosis globally in places like China, where there is a critical radiologist shortage.

Many biopharma firms are starting to embrace and invest in innovative tools like AI to accelerate information gathering and decision-making. They have the opportunity to significantly contribute to supporting inclusive innovation by thinking through the requirements and design of the technologies used from bench to bedside.  And can set an example for other sectors on how to think about equity and inclusion at the onset, with the goal of increasing access to therapeutics and care.

The Path Forward

True inclusive innovation requires strategic partnerships across sectors and communities. The private sector must join with governments, academics, healthcare providers, and communities to co-create solutions centered on the needs of diverse populations globally.

This process begins at the start of the innovation life cycle. These partnerships are vital for closing data gaps, ensuring innovations align with the lived experiences across diverse populations, and forging sustainable implementation models to drive equitable access and impact.

With the World Health Organization warning of inevitable future pandemics even more disruptive than before, the imperative to get this right could not be clearer. Longstanding innovation and access gaps pose systemic risks that require new multi-stakeholder models built on shared accountability for health equity.

The private sector’s role is essential, lending its unmatched capabilities in R&D, production and technology design. There is opportunity in their partnership to re-orient innovation from its starting point – ensuring all populations can equitably access the future of healthcare. Inclusive innovation is pragmatic, ethical, and an economic necessity for a healthier world.

Rajni Samavedam
Managing Partner & CEO

Rajni Samavedam, MPH is the Managing Partner & CEO at Rabin Martin where she oversees all global client relationships and the delivery of Rabin Martin’s breadth of consulting services. She has 25+ years of experience in health and life science consulting and public health research, as well as community-level understanding of global health challenges.