How Social Entrepreneurs Contribute In Shaping Health Innovations


We are all well aware of how healthcare is changing in response to new disruptive ideas. What we often don’t know is how to create new models that combine socially favorable needs with radical innovations within the health sector. With “socially favorable”  I either mean patient-centered or anything that is somehow able to provide tangible benefits for social wellbeing.

Physicians often still perceive health as a unilateral variable, focusing on getting patients the right treatment at the right time. Pharmaceutical companies are struggling with getting new drugs in their pipelines while investing insanely amounts on R&D, after which they are forced to sell the product for millions –if not billions– of dollars. Health insurers sell packages that mostly include unnecessary services and deny what individuals really need. Governments are implementing regulations on top of regulations that hamper genuine health outcomes and (in)-directly favor the most powerful parties. When you enter a hospital, several patients don’t want to be informed about their health status, they simply want to get a pill, injection or treatment and get out as fast as possible. Societies, cities, individuals, often times do not care what being healthy entails.

Needless to say, that all of the above statements are extreme –very extreme. Also needless to say, that there are without any doubt exceptions; I’m more than happy to let you know that you are probably one of them.

What about social entrepreneurs? Do we know who they are? Do we know what they do? Are they really that innovative or do we envision them as a bunch of hippies with flowerily tattooed shoulders trying to make the world a better place while singing Beatles songs on a rusty Volkswagen Type 2? But more importantly: are they also contributing to this cryptic healthcare system? Some probably are, but social entrepreneurs generally tend to have one thing in common: they identify a social need and tackle it through out-of-the-box thinking and re-designing the system. And what is more social and needed than being healthy and living in environments that promote a healthy lifestyle?

What about creating healthy cities? Are we transforming the way health care is perceived at a systemic level? What about tackling the cause rather than the illness?

Rebecca Onie, co-founder of Health Leads, is actively working on shaping an entirely new perception on treatments. She believes that when looking at low-income families, the real problem when coming to hospital isn’t the illness but the cause of it. Children living in battered apartments with broken windows, infested walls and leaky pipes come into hospitals with asthma problems and are given the medical treatment without assessing the root cause.

Health Leads mobilizes and trains over 1000 volunteers a year who will address this issue. Filling 23 hospital centers across the United States, the volunteers form Family Help Desks that reach out to patients weekly to check whether they obtain the resources they need. By applying their problem-solving skills, they manage to track down resources. Through this program, physicians are able to “prescribe” food, housing, job trainings and other resources in order to ensure an adequate health status.

When looking at the increasingly complex health landscape, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a physician, a pharmaceutical industry, a health insurance company, a governmental agency, a patient or simply an individual that believes that new insights can, and have to be given. At the end of the day it’s all about getting the right balance between social needs and innovative solutions. And for all those who believe that social entrepreneurship is exclusively relying on un-lucrative businesses: you’re allowed to make profit!

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Based in Amsterdam, Roberta graduated from Erasmus University in Health Economics, Policy and Law in 2011. During her academic path, she focused on researching the socio-economic inequalities in health care utilization in the rural areas of India. Over the past year, she has worked at Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, analyzing new disruptive patterns within the global health system -ranging from health systems to start-up business models. Over the past six years she has been working for a Dutch publishing firm as Marketing Manager and Executive Editor. Roberta is passionate about health innovations, disruptive change in developing countries, social media and photography. She is a lover of good food, travels, old movie theaters… and Apple.


  1. Great article! Shows a real understanding of the industry and has a great way of getting it across. Looking forward to reading more stuff from Roberta!


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