If the rebel inside had triumphed, Dr. Sumbel Desai would have been a journalist or media official. But after many pivots in her career, the Swede with Indian roots is now one of the most influential women in global tech — as Apple’s Vice President of Health.
“You would never think that all these stops you would be making would help you in your final turn. All that learning ends up with you exactly where you need to be,” Desai told The Indian Express in a video call from California.
Desai joined Apple five years ago to promote the Cupertino-based tech giant’s foray into personal health technologies. Prior to that, she held the position of Vice President of Strategy and Innovation in the Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Medicine as well as the Assistant Chief Medical Officer at Stanford Healthcare.
However, those early stints with Walt Disney and ABC News still stand out in her impressive resume. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer,” Desai says. She points out that her parents, who moved from India to Sweden and then the United States, echoing millions of Indians around the world, were no different when it came to their children.
“(But) I always wanted to do something more than that, so when I started my college career, I initially hoped to get into a liberal arts bachelor’s program. I also had a bachelor of science in a six-year MD program, which is very rare,” as you say. “I didn’t want to go, and when I was going through the application process, I gave clever answers in the hope that the admissions officers wouldn’t take me seriously.” This strategy did not go as planned. “Maybe that made me look a good rounder… I got in.”
But even though she joined Rensselaer Polytechnic, a prestigious technological research university in New York, mostly because her father was really keen, she didn’t do well in her first semester. “I wasn’t trying so hard.” That’s when her father gave up and asked her to do whatever she wanted. “I changed my major to computer science with a minor in communications.”
This is how Desai started her career in the media industry as she moved into the business side and worked on strategy. Then another development occurred when she was visiting her family in New York in August 2001, and her mother had a stroke. “I immediately fell into a coma and was in a critical condition in the intensive care unit on a ventilator. For me, on that day, life changed drastically,” says Desai.
A month later, when the city’s intensive care units had to be cleared to make room for 9/11 survivors, she had to take care of her mother in a rehab facility. “One of the advice a doctor gave me on the way out is that you have to really empower and advocate for your mother because she can’t,” says Desai, adding that her mother has been in the hospital for a year and had to re-learn everything from walking to breathing.
“It changed my view of healthcare to see that when you come together in a really beautiful way, it can really be a multi-faceted journey. It’s also a great collaboration across so many disciplines…the outcome can either be really good or the collaboration just doesn’t work. This was It is the driving force that led me to go back to medical school later in my life.”
Medicine also revived her association with India after she trained in Doordarshan and Times of India for her minor. “At Escorts (Now Fortis Escorts) in Delhi, I spent the day with some cardiologists, then with the Holy Family, and also with a nephrologist who had a private practice.” The complexity of the cases I witnessed in Delhi hospitals ‘reinforced’ her desire to go to healthcare ‘because part of the reason I wanted to (do it) was how you can give back to people and how you can have an impact’.
Desai realizes that although she was born in Sweden and has spent most of her life in the United States, her connection to India is a big part of her. “My mum is from Delhi and my dad was raised in UP near Meerut. We come from a family of proud Indians. We used to come back to India about every two years. When I was younger, it was almost every summer, and then when we got older it’s all two years.”
Desai says those visits with her grandparents made her more cohesive. “When you come back, you really go back to your roots and establish you, you always come back to the ground a little bit more. There is something about the culture and the people… and that is something that I really love for a long time and miss,” she says.
She quickly adds though that this could also be a romantic view of reality because “it’s clear that the world is changing there too.”
Although she rebelled against her parents’ desire to see her as a doctor or an engineer, Desai now appreciates what they were trying to achieve. “The only thing I am blessed with is that as a woman, and especially as a Muslim woman, my parents always felt that I should be independent and be able to support myself. It wasn’t like you had to go off and get married… you had to get a job and support myself. yourself and find a stable way to do it. And for them, that was engineering and medicine.”
For her current role at Apple, Desai says her communication experience helps. “The ability to communicate is really critical, because you want to be able to take very complex topics and know how to sum them up in a simple way so that they can be understood,” she says.
The Apple Health team “spends a lot of time obsessing over how to simplify the message an individual receives so that they really understand in the moment what we’re telling them.” This is where the ability to take complex messages and simplify them as a doctor, she says, is “incredibly valuable.” “I think all my experiences have been the ability to push our teams to do it in a meaningful way.”
As someone working on technology that alerts millions of people about their health based on data their bodies generate, Desai says it’s an “honour” that people choose to use these devices every day. She says it’s about empowering individuals to feel in control of their health. “…Privacy is so fundamental and core in everything we do that the individual owns the data on their devices, and controls that data. This is also part of the empowerment,” she says.
Desai is clear that Apple does not want to provide information for the sake of information, “because that does nothing.” “We not only want the individual to have an understanding of the scientific support for these actual ideas, but also the medical community because we really believe the partnership is truly sacred and we want to enrich this partnership so that you have more information so that the practitioner can rely on it from a scientific basis, have more information To understand what is happening with the individual. ”
Desai teaches “on occasion” at Stanford and has helped with Covid-19 work. But those “small data moments” at Apple are still amazing because “it’s a lot like snapshots and photos like you take pictures of your everyday life with your camera.”
“Combined with traditional clinical scales, it gives us a more comprehensive data set to be able to make potential clinical decisions. Our devices are never intended for diagnosis. What they mean is an additional examination, or additional information so you can make more actionable decisions,” as you say.
Despite huge advances in health technology in recent years, especially due to the pandemic, Desai says there is a lot more to be done. “Despite technological advances, when it comes to technology and healthcare, we are still very early in our journey…but I think one now feels more empowered in terms of asking the right questions.”
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