In brief

In brief

  • Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, talks with Accenture for the Women in Life Sciences series.
  • The Novartis Foundation is a philanthropic organization working to build sustainability in the health of low-income communities.
  • Ann shares details about the great work The Novartis Foundation is doing to tackle global health challenges by programmatic work, health outcomes research and policy.

The Novartis Foundation is a philanthropic organization working to build sustainability in the health of low-income communities. We spoke with Ann Aerts, head of the foundation, about the work they are doing to tackle global health challenges through a mix of programmatic work, health outcomes research, and their translation into policy – as well as her inspiration and drive as a leader.

FRANK MUELLER: What inspired your medical and scientific career?

ANN AERTS: As a child I was fascinated by doctor Schweitzer. More than a century ago, he went to Africa and then came back to his home, here close to Basil, to play music concerts and do fundraising for his programs in Africa. I learned of his work and knew I wanted to be involved in some way. Then, when I was a teenager, I was really taken by documentaries on TV about the famines that were happening in Ethiopia at the time. I looked at how organizations like the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières were founded and I said, “This is what I’m gonna do.”

FM: You’ve had a very full-circle career, going from international work with the Red Cross and other non-profit organizations, then into pharma, and then back into a philanthropic organization with the Novartis foundation. Was this full-circle approach intentional?

AA: It has absolutely not been intentional. I’m someone who takes opportunities as they come along. What was intentional were my first choices. So, first and foremost in Belgium when I finalized my studies, I worked as an emergency physician and in intensive care for a few years. I was also studying tropical medicine at the same time and decided I would go abroad after that. So, I chose to be an emergency physician and then go abroad to work in complex emergencies.

I worked mainly in conflict areas. And after a while, when I learned how things had to be organized to have the best impact, I advanced to becoming a coordinator of those actions. This took me away from my clinical work without me realizing it, really. I missed it because I love being a physician and doing clinical work. But I advanced in that career and in the end, after a few years, I ended up heading the health services in the international committee of the Red Cross, which was the biggest humanitarian organization at the time.

Then at a certain moment I realized that was enough – I wanted a normal life. I was in my mid-30s; I had been married a long time and I said, “Okay, now I want kids.” And that kind of international work is not really combinable with having children. So, I went back to my home country. In fact, I was called home by the government in Belgium. It was September 11th and they called me back to set up the emergency response there in the public health space. It was a really good experience to understand how governments work, but I didn’t enjoy the bureaucratic parts of it as much.

That experience helped me to realize that what I wanted to do was combine my passions of being an emergency physician and science. So, I took a role in the pharma sector – but it was not by chance that I chose Novartis. I chose Novartis because I was very interested in their research on tropical diseases. The company has the Novartis Institute of Tropical Diseases and it was almost the only company who was doing that at the time. So, that's why I came to Novartis and worked in R&D for more than seven years, first in Belgium and then here in Basil. And then I joined the foundation in this role.

FM: The Novartis Foundation is engaged in so many different activities and projects. Do you have one that you would consider as closest to your heart?

AA: We have a big initiative currently and that is advancing cardiovascular health really at the level of populations at large. And that's my favorite, absolute favorite, because it's responding to the world's leading problem currently – cardiovascular disease the leading cause of death. There are very few answers or solutions to that in low- and middle-income settings, where health systems are insufficiently equipped and prepared to address all the needs. That initiative has an enormous impact and will always be my favorite, because it is so impactful.

But it’s not the only one, of course. I really liked the work we did on leprosy, for example, where we went to the last miles to advance or accelerate in the elimination. And now are going to get there with the newest technology. We are going to be able to eliminate the oldest disease we know in the world because we use an AI solution using image-based diagnostics. So, I cannot say I don't love that, but it's not in our foundation anymore. We are handing this over now to Novartis, so that it can be rolled out in the whole world.

FM: In your experience what is the best way to enable innovative technology to develop and scale in places that need it most?

AA: I wouldn't claim that I know the answer to that, because I don't. But in our work, we have always underpinned our initiatives with data and digital driven innovations. Currently, we are expanding that to the use of AI as much as possible. For example, what we’ve seen with the models that are now truly mature in telemedicine or virtual care, is that to scale it has to be adapted to the local infrastructure and the local needs. A digital or an AI solution first and foremost has to respond to a priority in the country where you want to roll it out. If it's not a health priority, it will never reach scale. And that priority has to be set together with the local health authorities. It cannot be you coming into a health authority proposing a solution. We always work in the opposite way. We ask what the main problems are and how they would like to address them. Then we challenge, we challenge the local governments or decision-makers to think differently, outside of the box. But the governments have to buy-in from the beginning.

The second condition is that we include the needs of the people who will use it the solutions. If we don't do that, the solution will never be successful.

FM: If there were no barriers, no limitations on what you could achieve, what are the three things you would have on your wish list?

AA: Three things? Oh wow! For the foundation, I would wish that we could find a way to scale our population approach as large as possible. I think we can do it, actually, with the help of Novartis, because the company stands for scale and we are a small organization.

A second wish is that the COVID vaccine can be rolled out worldwide as soon as possible and in an equitable way, obviously. So, that we can start to get back to a little bit more normal life next year.

And my third wish? I think maybe that health becomes a respected agenda item in every government. That governments take it seriously and spend on it – spend the necessary resources to make sure health systems become stronger. Or to make sure health systems can re-engineer themselves with the opportunity of living in a digital era, where we have this computational power that can do anything. We have to transform our systems, from being care systems that wait for people to get sick before they come to the system, to becoming proactive, predictive and even preventive health systems. That would be my main wish, really.

Frank Mueller

Senior Manager – Life Sciences, Marketing

Ann Aerts, M.D.

Head of the Novartis Foundation – Novartis Foundation


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