Chasing a Sense of Purpose: In Healthcare, and Beyond

Shaira Bhanji, Contributor

On a brisk January day in San Francisco, California, 10,000 attendees from more than 450 companies spanning medical devices, healthcare service providers, and pharmaceuticals piled into the heart of the city to attend the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference. The days were filled by a rapid fire of ideas in innovation and investing—from how to more effectively address ongoing health inequities to applications for breakthroughs in genetic testing.

Amongst the deluge of interesting topics was a presentation on ways in which IBM Watson’s artificial intelligence is revolutionizing healthcare. Watson, which made an appearance in this year’s RC Technology and Operations Management (TOM) course, has moved off of the stage of Jeopardy! and into the life of the patient.

In an increasingly complicated field where even the most seemingly similar patients may require vastly different treatment strategies, Watson is learning to combine patient data with evidence-based medicine practices to create customized care plans or predict how a patient might fare on a particular clinical trial regimen. It is even going so far as to make clinical research more efficient by helping to determine which proteins may be appropriate drug targets for complex diseases.

Keynote speaker Bill Gates, Co-Chair and Trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses principally on global health issues, emphasized ways in which innovation by companies such as IBM is bridging parts of healthcare that may once have seemed separate.

Namely, global health and the private sector will increasingly be able to benefit from the knowledge created in either space. The innovation agendas of biotech and pharmaceutical companies could have significant positive implications for global health issues in the world’s poorest countries. For example, according to Gates, the immunoncology powerhouses of several of today’s biopharmaceutical companies, as well as their cutting-edge research on neurodegenerative diseases, could hold important clues to cures for autoimmune diseases such as HIV or promoting cognition during early childhood development. “We all share the goal of improving the health and well-being of people globally. Imagine what’s possible if we work together,” said Gates.

Gates appealed to players in the biotech and pharmaceutical space to continue to do well by doing good via their groundbreaking research into cures for some of the world’s most stubborn and debilitating diseases by remembering that their impact may be more widely applicable than they would have initially thought.

His emphasis on creating a positive impact and the importance of doing well by doing good is also a timely reminder to always remember one’s purpose, a message that hits close to home as the cloud of recruiting season looms above the heads of many students during the spring term. Gates’ words serve as a timely reminder to refocus one’s lenses and not lose sight of the bigger picture. In the angst of what sometimes seems like a long, protracted process, it is easy to become short-sighted and throw one’s true aspirations to the wayside.

Let Gates’ message, combined with the Harvard Business School’s mission statement (“To educate leaders who make a difference in the world”), serve as a True North to hold oneself accountable for seeking out this sense of purpose—be it in any industry, in any far-flung corner of the world—and for remembering that finding this purpose will always require a healthy dose of risk-taking.

Shaira Bhanji (HBS ’19) is the Healthcare Editor of The Harbus and a proud member of Section C. She was born and raised in sunny Los Angeles, California but has oddly been drawn to colder climates such as Boston and Chicago. Prior to HBS, Shaira worked in management consulting and healthcare strategy. Outside of school, she enjoys Zumba, Netflix’s The Crown, and a hot cup of cardamom green tea.