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Had the rebel in her completely had her way, Sumbul Desai would have ended up as a journalist or a media honcho. But after many pivots in her career path, Dr Sumbul Desai is now one of the most influential women in tech, as VP-Health at Apple.
“You never think that all of those stops you make will help you with your ultimate role. All that learning ends up putting you exactly where you should be,” Dr Desai tells The Indian Express on a video call from California.
It was almost exactly five years ago that she joined Apple, leaving her role as Vice Chair of Strategy and Innovation in the Department of Medicine at Stanford Medicine as well as Associate Chief Medical Officer at Stanford Healthcare, to strengthen the Cupertino-based tech giant’s foray into personal health technologies.
But it is her stints with the Walt Disney Company and ABC Medicine in the early part of her career that stand out in her impressive medical resume. “My parents wanted me to be either a doctor or an engineer,” remembers Dr Desai, echoing millions of Indians across the world. Her parents, who moved from North India to Sweden and then the US, were no different when it came to securing the future of their children.
But young Sumbul had other plans. “I always wanted to do something more than that. So, when I started my undergraduate studies, I was initially hoping to go to a bachelor’s program in liberal arts. I also had gotten into a six-year Bachelors of Science in MD program, which is very rare,” she says. “I did not want to go and so, during the application process, I gave smart-aleck answers hoping the admission officers wouldn’t take me seriously.” That strategy didn’t go as planned. “That probably made me sound well rounded… I got in.”
But though she joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, mostly because her father was really keen, she did not do particularly well in the first semester. “I was deliberately not trying very hard in school.” That’s when her dad gave in and told her to do what she wanted. “I changed my major to computer science with a minor in communications.”
So Dr Desai’s career started in the media industry, where she soon transitioned into the business side and worked on strategy. But in August 2001, she was visiting her family in New York when her mother had a massive stroke. “She went immediately into a coma and was critically ill in the ICU on a ventilator. For me that day, life fundamentally changed…”
A month later, when the city’s ICUs were vacated to make way for survivors of the 9/11 attacks, she had to care for her mother in a rehab facility. “One piece of advice one of the doctors gave me on the way out was that you have to empower your mother and really advocate for her because she can’t,” recalls Dr. Desai, whose mother was in the hospital for a year. he had to relearn everything from walking to breathing.
“That changed my perspective on health care, seeing that when it comes together in a really beautiful way, it can be a multi-faceted journey. It’s also very much a collaboration across many disciplines… the result can either be really good or the collaboration doesn’t work. That was the driving force behind why I decided to go back to medical school later in life,” says Dr. Desai.
Dr. Desai was in Delhi while she was studying medicine, as well as during her junior communications school, when she interned at Doordarshan and Time of India. “I spent the day with several cardiologists at Escorts, then at Holy Family, and also with a nephrologist who had a private practice,” recalls Dr. Desai.
The complexity of the cases she saw in Delhi took her breath away and “solidified” her desire to go into healthcare. “Part of why I wanted to get into healthcare was how you give back to people and the impact you have,” she says.
Dr Desai says that although she was born in Sweden and spent most of her life in the US, this connection she has with India is a big part of who she is. “My mother is from Delhi and my father grew up in UP near Meerut. We come from a very proud Indian family. We went back to India almost every other year growing up. When I was younger it was almost every summer, and when we got a little older it was every other year.’
Now, Dr. Desai feels that these visits to her grandparents have grounded her more. “Whenever you come back, you really go back to your roots and that grounds you, you always come back a little stronger. There’s something about the culture, the people, the sense of community that we sometimes don’t have in the States. That’s something I really want and miss,” she says, aware that it could be a romanticized view of reality. “Of course the world is changing there too.
Although as a teenager she rebelled against her Indian parents’ desire to see her become a doctor or engineer, she now appreciates what they were trying to achieve. “One thing I am blessed with is that as a woman, and especially as a Muslim, my parents always felt that I should be independent and able to support myself. It was never like you had to leave and get married… it was very necessary to have a career and support yourself and find a stable way to do that. And for them it was engineering and medicine.”
Dr. Desai acknowledges that her experience in communications is helping her now in her role at Apple. “The ability to communicate is really critical because you want to be able to take very complex topics and figure out how to distill them down in a simple way that makes it understandable,” he says, adding that people on the Apple Health team “spend a lot of time obsessing over how to simplify the message that the individual receives so that they actually understand what we are saying to them in that moment”.
He says this is where being able to take complex messages and simplify them is incredibly valuable as a doctor. “I think all of my experiences have equated to being able to get our teams to do that in a meaningful way.
As someone who has worked on technology that alerts millions of people to something wrong with their bodies based on the data their bodies generate, Dr. Desai is “honored” that people choose to use these devices and are with them every day. .
He says it’s about making individuals feel in control of their health. “This means both the information we provide, but also the fact that privacy is central and at the heart of everything we do, so that the individual owns and controls the data on their device. That too is part of the strengthening.”
Dr Desai is clear that Apple does not want to provide information for information’s sake “because it doesn’t do anything”. “We want the individual and the medical community to understand the scientific support for these findings. We really believe that this partnership is sacred and we want to enrich this partnership so that the practitioner has more information to rely on from a scientific basis,” says Dr Desai, who still occasionally teaches at Stanford and has even helped with the Covid-19 work . .
For her, these little data moments are “almost like snapshots and pictures, like you take your everyday life with a camera.”
Dr. Desai says doctors like her would like more information, and “now we have several data points that complement” whatever patients are saying.
“Along with traditional clinical metrics, it gives us a more comprehensive data set to potentially make clinical decisions. Our devices are never intended for diagnosis. They are intended for additional screening or additional information so that you can make more actionable decisions.”
Despite the huge advances in health technology in recent years, even with the acceleration in the segment due to the pandemic, Dr. Desai knows that much more needs to be done. “As advanced as technology is when it comes to health care, we’re still very early in our journey… But I think the individual now feels more empowered to ask the right questions.”