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5 Questions for...David Barash, Chief Medical Officer, GE Foundation

March 05, 2015

David Barash, an emergency room physician, joined the GE family in 2010 as chief medical officer of the Life Care Solutions business, a division of GE Healthcare known for its technological innovation, and moved to the GE Foundation, which he serves as the chief medical officer and executive director of the health portfolio, in 2013.

Philanthropy News Digest recently recently spoke with Barash about the foundation’s global initiatives and plans for 2015.

Headshot_david-barashPhilanthropy News Digest: Over the past few years, the GE Foundation has earmarked a significant portion of its resources for Africa, with a focus on children and mothers. How did that programmatic focus come about?

David Barash: We started thinking about what we could do programmatically in Africa about ten years ago. Initially, the Africa Project was limited to in-kind donations of equipment. We soon realized, however, that simply donating equipment is a flawed strategy if you don't have people on the ground who can use and maintain that equipment. So we re-evaluated what we were doing and determined that our goals were really to help drive capacity building and strengthening public health systems in the region.

With that in mind, the two pillars of our grantmaking in Africa today are Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5, Reducing Child Mortality and Improving Maternal Health, and Safe Surgery in low resource settings — seeing what can we do to help provide safe surgical environments, primarily for pregnant mothers, but also for accident and trauma victims.

GE is known for is its lean Six Sigma approach and change acceleration process, what we call our CAP program. In working with health clinics here in the United States, for example, our teams are invited in to work with the clinic leaders, look at what is needed, ask clinic staff what they need, and provide the type of training GE leaders and executives get. In most cases, it's about the change process: here's what you can change, here's how we would suggest doing it, here are the things you need to look out for. We work alongside clinical staff to help them get where they want to go.

We use the same principles in sub-Saharan Africa, where hundreds of women die every day as a result of complications from pregnancy. A lot of those mothers are dying because there is limited access to safe anesthesia, which reduces the availability and increases the risk of C-section. One of our communities is Kisumu, in western Kenya, which before we got there had no anesthesiologists for a population of five hundred thousand people. We saw that and thought, "What if we can offer a simple intervention? What if we train nurses to deliver anesthesia independently of a physician or anesthesiologist?" If we trained X number of nurses, they could handle Y number of cases a day. Of course, there are other issues: you need to have operating rooms, you need to have clean water, oxygen — some of which we're delivering. But right now, without anesthesia, women are dying.

We had heard about Dr. Mark Newton, a physician from the U.S. who has been working at Kijabe Hospital, north of Nairobi, for fifteen years, training nurses to be nurse-anesthetists. He's been very successful and has been able to deliver extraordinary services and safe surgery in a very resource-poor setting. In a partnership with the Kenyan Ministry of Health, Dr. Newton and Kijabe Hospital, our local partner the Center for Public Health and Development, Assist International, and Vanderbilt University, we have established a robust program to train forty nurse anesthetists for Kisumu County.

PND: Jumping to the other side of the continent, the foundation provided $2 million to Partners In Health to address needs related to the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Had you been active in West Africa prior to the outbreak?

DB: We have a significant presence in Nigeria and some in Ghana, but we have limited programs in the three countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak. However, as the news from the region grew dire, we started thinking about what we might do, and I asked our board to look carefully at the potential impact Ebola could have — not just on Africa, but on the global economy. Quite frankly, looking at what we could do to help those underresourced countries was the right thing to do and led directly to our commitment to Partners In Health.

We also looked at other ways we could help. For example, we established what we call the Ebola Business Response Team, which is looking at how GE businesses can have impact beyond just the cash contribution we’re making to Partners In Health. GE Healthcare is looking at what equipment might be useful, not only in the response to the current outbreak but in terms of strengthening public health infrastructure in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. And we're talking to GE Water about some of the filtration systems they make and what we might be able do to strengthen water systems and infrastructure in all three countries, as well as GE Power and our healthcare software and global software businesses.

PND: Have your relationships in Kenya been of help when developing new relationships in other countries?

DB: A little, from a logistics standpoint. But the fact that we’re engaged in Africa, in Kenya and Nigeria and Rwanda and Uganda, has demonstrated that we're committed to the continent. I think the fact that we have a positive reputation in eastern Africa enables us to be more effective in West Africa.

PND: Internationally speaking, where else are you working?

DB: About 70 percent of our global investment is focused on sub-Saharan Africa, with the rest allocated to Southeast Asia and Latin America. We're beginning to look at what we might do in India, and we're going to expand our footprint in Latin America this year. We're already in Honduras, and we had a program in Haiti right after the earthquake in 2010.

PND: What are some of the challenges associated with launching programs in countries where you don't have much of an established footprint?

DB: One of the best assets we have as a foundation is the GE employee base. We have three hundred thousand employees spread across many of the countries where we would like to operate. They can open lots of doors for us: at the ministry level, and at the partner level, whether it's with clinics or hospitals or NGOs.

The important piece of all these ventures is the need to establish partnerships. We know we can't do everything ourselves. That said, we've done a pretty good job to date finding partners who can help us implement programs and finding partners who can advocate and help us get the word out. We also see an untapped opportunity for us to partner with other philanthropic entities. Those partners could be from the private sector, they could be from the public sector, they could be NGOs or academic institutions. But for us to truly scale our programs, we need to collaborate with others. That's just a given.

Matt Sinclair

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