Our monthly check-in with staff from around the world. Learn more about the people who work at CHAI.
Senior Director, Digital Health
Start date: August 2013
Senior Technical Advisor, Health Informatics
Washington, D.C., USA
Start date: July 2017
Associate, Health Informatics
Start date: February 2022
For this month, our ‘5 questions with’ blog series departs from the way it is typically structured – instead of one person answering questions, we have three staff from the digital health team answering questions. The digital health team works with governments, software developers, donors, and end users such as healthcare providers, health systems managers, and patients, to design, develop, scale, and institutionalize fit-for-purpose digital products. Featured in this blog are, Lakshmi Balachandran, Senior Director of Digital Health; Sameen Barbur, Health Informatics, Senior Technical Advisor, and Bocar Anne, Health Informatics Associate.
What is CHAI’s approach to digital health?
Lakshmi Balachandran: CHAI works to ensure that technology is used effectively to catalyze government health goals. We work with governments, software developers, donors, and end users (healthcare providers, health systems managers, and patients) to design, develop, scale, and institutionalize fit-for-purpose digital products. We also focus on governments having the staff, policies, strategies, and resources to sustain and drive the use of digital health beyond our support.
Can you share a bit about the current digital health team?
LB: We are a team of 15 based across regions that CHAI works in – including two team members in Asia; seven in Africa; and two team members in Latin America, as well as four across the US and Europe. We are largely embedded in other program teams to ensure we have a deep understanding of the program context and drive towards program goals. Our team members come from a wide range of backgrounds, with various previous roles in government, large tech companies, technology consulting, startups, and working with other NGOs, primarily working on technology product management and implementation.
What do you enjoy most about working in the digital health space?
LB: This space allows us to think both about how to make existing processes and service delivery more efficient and also prepare for the way that healthcare will function five to 10 years from now. We spend most of our days on strengthening systems for disease surveillance, logistics, health financing, labs, and other many aspects of public health, and see the impact of more efficient systems and better data for decision-making across levels of government. At the same time, we get to advocate for and establish better processes, policies, teams, and infrastructure to leverage the immense changes we are seeing in the uptake of technology across low- and middle-income countries—be it mobile phone penetration, the use of smartphones, the internet, or advanced analytics.
Bocar Anne: Three words can explain my choice and enthusiasm to work in digital health: innovation, simplicity, and impact. Technology alone is not enough, there is also a need for infrastructure, men and women, governance, and resources to implement digital health innovations. Today, we have an impressive array of tools that I believe need to be simple and focused on specific needs and have the potential to positively impact everyone from patients to professionals and providers. COVID-19 is a compelling argument for the importance of digitization and its impact in fighting the pandemic by improving the effectiveness and efficiency of health operations delivery.
What brought you to CHAI and why do you stay?
LB: I came to CHAI very enthusiastic about the several core values—working with governments, humility, frugality—having heard of CHAI’s impact and understated approach from several people in the global health space. I also joined incredibly skeptical about working on technology, having seen digital tools and pilots fail numerous times in pursuit of a shiny silver bullet solution to intractable problems. I have stayed for over nine years now because of the incredibly smart and driven colleagues I have met and learned from, the many opportunities to grow and have my ideas heard, and because I genuinely believe the way we approach problems (including the use of digital health!) has incredible impact and sustenance.
Sameen Babur: I was interested in global health for a very long time, but found it difficult to break into the field having not had any international work experience or a master’s in public health; but I knew CHAI recruited from nontraditional backgrounds. The organization’s nontraditional NGO approach to strengthening government systems and working alongside ministries of health also resonated with my values, particularly as I became more aware of the colonial legacies behind the field. There are so many jobs out there in tech, but none that would give me the same feeling of impact, intellectual stimulation, and warmth from colleagues. While I originally thought this would only be a two-year stint, I’ve stayed for over five years now because the work is always interesting and evolving, I can see a tangible impact from the support we provide, and I’ve made so many fond memories along the way.
What does a typical day at CHAI look like for you?
BA: There is no typical day as we emphasize a collaborative approach and are available depending on the needs of the teams we work with, our government counterparts, and any partners we work with. We alternate between internal and government meetings, workshops, design and testing sessions, trainings, and planning and guiding on how to best use technology to improve decision-making. Our unique role is in bridging the gap between the programmatic aspects of the health systems and technology.
The digital health team is hiring. Why do you think this is an exciting time to join the team?
SB: Ministries of health are increasingly realizing that digital health must exist as a core intervention alongside all the other traditional programs that have been running for decades. As a result, there is a lot of exciting emerging work in this space, and CHAI is in a unique position to work directly with ministries of health in shaping and executing a new vision for serving their populations.