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Alumna Spotlight: Sylvia Sable Helps Health Care Innovators Succeed in East Africa

March 03, 2015

Sylvia Sable, MSc-GH ’13, began her global health journey as an undergraduate at Cornell University, where she majored in “biology and society”—a combination of hard science and humanities courses—and minored in global health and nutrition. After completing fieldwork in Tanzania, she knew she wanted to pursue a global health career.

She was attracted to Duke’s global health master’s degree program because of its strong emphasis on research, a skill she knew would be important to her success in the field of global health. But the most formative experience of the program for Sable was the opportunity not only to learn rigorous research methods, but to simultaneously apply what she was learning to a broader health system context through an intensive internship.

Sable Found her Passion in Supporting Health Care Entrepreneurship

Throughout her MSc-GH program, Sable interned with the International Partnership for Innovative Healthcare Delivery (IPIHD) and the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke (SEAD).

IPIHD is a non-profit affiliate organization of Duke that provides targeted business support, connections and resources to help more than 50 innovative healthcare enterprises (“innovators”) from around the world scale and replicate their models. IPIHD is also a partner in the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke (SEAD), a USAID-funded accelerator program working with 25 of the IPIHD innovators in East Africa and India.

As part of the research and knowledge development team at IPIHD, Sable helped identify and analyze trends and promising practices across the IPIHD network of healthcare innovators. She and her colleagues examined trends in profit models, marketing tactics, outreach strategies and other core aspects of the businesses. 

According to Sable, the internship helped her discover her professional “sweet spot”: working with health care entrepreneurs in low-resource communities across the world.

Transitioning to Full-time, Sable Put Research into Practice

In fact, Sable enjoyed her internship so much that she decided to continue working with IPIHD and SEAD after graduating. When she transitioned to a full-time position, she and her colleagues applied their research to develop a framework that describes the most compelling and successful aspects of the companies in the innovator network. 

They’re currently preparing to analyze this new framework, with the goal of identifying best practices for serving specific populations with specific health needs. These findings can then be used to provide tailored advice to current and future innovators on operational models that are likely to prove successful for their particular health product or service.

New SEAD Office Brings New Challenges for Sable

Now based in Nairobi, Kenya, Sable has recently taken on a new challenge: helping SEAD establish an office in Nairobi. The goals for this office are twofold:

  1. To provide more in-depth, on-the-ground support to the 12 innovators in the SEAD network who are based in East Africa
  2. To engage and collaborate with other regional stakeholders working to promote and strengthen efforts in health care innovation

Sable and her colleague, regional director Patricia Odero, are currently meeting with dozens of stakeholders to map the health care ecosystem in East Africa, with the goal of proposing recommendations for future work this spring. 

Sable is excited and hopeful about this work: “It’s so energizing being here. There’s a real need for this kind of work, especially around health. A conducive ecosystem can do a lot more than one person can do. If we can get people organized and aligned around health care innovation being important and applicable, it will be a huge win.”  

Sable also serves as a SEAD engagement manager, providing technical assistance and capacity-building support for the four newest innovators in East Africa. 

Sarah Gelfand, deputy director of IPIHD and SEAD, considers Sable an invaluable member of the IPHID team.  She notes, “With her educational background and her passion and dedication to the work, Sylvia has already made important contributions to IPIHD’s research efforts and to our East Africa programs.”

Rigorous Research Is Easier Said than Done

Through her various roles with IPIHD and SEAD, the research skills Sable learned during her master’s program have been critical to her success, just as she predicted. But her experiences have also taught her first-hand about the challenges of conducting rigorous research in a real-world setting, particularly in the context of entrepreneurship. 

The innovators she works with, for example, don’t have the time or the resources to do a randomized controlled trial. As a result, she said, “Sometimes you have to ask yourself what’s second best, and how you can deliver good care to people in a year or two, as opposed to 10 years, when we know definitively, absolutely, that the product or service makes a difference.” 

With a solid understanding of research methods and statistics and a strong grasp of the healthcare system in East Africa, Sable can discern what aspects of the process she can “bend and stretch” to maintain rigorous research standards while keeping innovator recommendations feasible and practical for health care entrepreneurs.

“There’s an interesting middle ground there,” she reflected. “And I’m really excited to be working on navigating that.”

Interested in Learning More about IPIHD and SEAD?

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Sylvia_Sable_and_Patricia_Odero
Patricia Odero, SEAD regional director (L) and Sylvia Sable, SEAD engagement manager, at a SEAD East Africa dinner in February

If we can get people organized and aligned around health care innovation being important and applicable, it will be a huge win.

Sylvia Sable, MSc-GH '13

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