Sunday, March 10, 2013

Billions Saved (not "touched")

The field I work in is obsessed with impact. How will an organization make a measurable difference on a problem that matters? Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to silly math. Claims of "lives touched," whatever that means.

Sometimes, it is useful to step back and think about those that truly had an impact. Rather than lives touched, let's talk about lives saved. Here are a few examples.

Ignaz Semmelweis - first person to worry about germs in hospitals, when he noticed the number of women dying after childbirth. Turns out doctors weren't washing their hands. This was over a hundred years ago, so problem solved, right? Sadly, no. Hand washing and disinfection, (or lack thereof) is back in news with recent CDC "super bug" warnings. Semmelweis did not live to see the triumph of his ideas. He died after being beaten by guards in an asylum.

Norman Borlaug, who was central to the green revolution in agriculture. He won the Nobel Prize, and is credited with saving a billion lives.

Edward Jenner, often called the father of immunology. He was a pioneer in inoculation and vaccination, and is credited with proving effectiveness of early small pox vaccine. Historically, it had a 30% fatality rate, and millions were infected. Centuries later, smallpox was eradicated in the early 1970's by the WHO.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, which led to broad use of antibiotics to treat disease. He also won the Nobel Prize. Not every dose saved a life, but many did. And we use a lot of antibiotics these days... estimates are 190 million per day. Which causes other problems. (This is an example of over-adoption of an innovation.)

What can we learn from these examples of impact? Bake your impact into your products and services. An ounce of prevention is worth at least a pound of cure. Measure real impact. Tie your metrics to your purpose. Income produced. Acres farmed with organic methods or reforested.  Cases treated. Births without HIV infection. Lives saved.

Direct causation (or correlation) is often hard to establish when you work on prevention, but work toward it, not away from it. Impact is too important to dilute with silly math and a meaningless competition on "lives touched."
If you like big numbers, you might be interested in these other blogs of mine: 3 Billion Served and Logistics, Legacy and Large Numbers
Of note, if you want to save billion of lives, you are living at the right time. For a few reasons. First, many people are living now versus the past (Banks estimates "about one person of fifteen who have ever lived is currently living").  And the pace of innovation and dissemination is much higher than in the past.

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