5 minutes with Ann Aerts, Novartis Foundation

Ann Aerts leads the Novartis Foundation, which supports global health by using data and AI to address cardiovascular health and health inequity

Hi Ann, please introduce yourself and your role.

“I’m Ann Aerts and I head up the Novartis Foundation, a non-profit based in Switzerland that is committed to using data and AI to address two of the burning issues of our time: cardiovascular health and health inequity.”


What led you to this industry?

“I began my career working as an emergency physician in complex medical emergencies for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and then transitioned to a number of leadership positions before joining Novartis to work in R&D. I chose Novartis because I was fascinated by their research into tropical diseases. Novartis still has the Novartis Institute of Tropical Diseases, but at the time it was almost the only company operating in that area. After seven years in R&D, I moved to the Novartis Foundation, which gave me the opportunity to combine my passions.”


What is the Novartis Foundation and how is it supporting global health?

“For more than 40 years, we’ve helped improve the health of people living in low-income communities, initially supporting disease elimination in areas such as leprosy and malaria. Today, we tackle the burning issues of our time, cardiovascular disease and health inequity. We take a population health approach, which means bringing together existing – but often disconnected – data to help authorities understand the root causes of unequal health outcomes.”


Tell us about the AI4HealthyCities Health Equity Network.

“The AI4HealthyCities Health Equity Network was created by the Novartis Foundation and developed in collaboration with Microsoft AI for Health. It aims to reimagine how cities tackle heart health inequities by bringing together data from the health and health influencing sectors and then applying analytics and AI to provide decision makers with insights about the main drivers of cardiovascular disease – the world’s number one cause of death and disability.

“These insights could help stakeholders such as city authorities make more informed decisions about how to target health resources towards the interventions that could make the largest impact on the health of the greatest number of people. Our ultimate aim is to help city authorities narrow existing health inequities in a world where neighbouring zip codes can have drastic differences in their residents’ heart health. In New York City, the first city to join the initiative, it aims to challenge the current reality where a child born in the Upper East Side of New York has a life expectancy eleven years longer than a child born in the neighbourhood of Brownsville in the same city.”

“These insights could help stakeholders such as city authorities make more informed decisions about how to target health resources towards the interventions that could make the largest impact on the health of the greatest number of people," Ann AertsNovartis Foundation

How are you using data and analytics to target heart health inequity?

“The data analytics use sophisticated algorithms to ‘learn’ features from a large volume of data and extract useful information such as patterns and predicted outcomes. In New York, in collaboration with Microsoft AI4Health data scientists, we will use AI to develop algorithms that can analyse data from the health and health influencing sectors, and produce zip-code level data visualisation tools, maps, and vulnerability and risk scores to provide insights for decision makers.”


Tell us about your work with Microsoft AI for Health and NYU School of Global Public Health.

“The NYU School of Global Public Health will lead the research in collaboration with Microsoft AI for Health by bringing together data on cardiovascular disease and social determinants of heart health in New York City. Microsoft AI for Health will provide the data management and analytic tools. The Novartis Foundation will continue to coordinate the initiative as we expand to more cities globally, and convene urban population health and cardiovascular health expertise. We’ll also work with city authorities and their partners to translate the data insights into population health roadmaps and disseminate the learnings through AI4HealthyCities summits.”


How do structural factors such as racism, housing or education impact health inequity?

“Cardiovascular morbidity and mortality disproportionately affects minority and low-income populations. This inequity contributes directly to the notable disparities in strokes and heart attacks among racial and ethnic minorities, and is a primary cause of the gap in mortality between black and white patients, and of the substantial difference in life expectancy between high and low poverty areas in New York City.”


During your time here, what have you learned about the global healthcare industry?

“Private sector players in the global healthcare industry have the capability and willingness to contribute to society's well being. It’s a positive environment to work in because you are surrounded by people truly committed to improving and extending people’s lives. But the fact remains that global healthcare challenges are too vast for any one organisation or sector to face alone – we need cross-sector and cross-discipline collaboration to effectively tackle issues such as cardiovascular health and health inequity. There is significant and growing willingness for these types of collaborations, so I feel optimistic about the positive impact the coming years can bring.”


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