If the rebel in her had gotten her way, Sumbul Desai would have ended up as a journalist or media boss. But after many twists and turns in her career path, Dr. Sumbul Desai is now one of the most influential women in tech, serving as Vice President of Health at Apple.
“You never think that all those stops you make will help you with your final role. All that learning ends up putting it exactly where it needs to be,” Dr. Desai tells The Indian Express in a video call from California.
It has been almost exactly five years since she joined Apple, leaving her role as Vice President of Strategy and Innovation in the Department of Medicine at Stanford Medicine, as well as Associate Medical Director at Stanford Healthcare, to strengthen the Cupertino-based tech giant’s foray. in personal health technologies.
But it is his stints with the Walt Disney Company and ABC Medicine early in his career that stand out on his impressive medical resume. “My parents wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer,” recalls Dr. Desai, echoing millions of Indians around the world. His parents, who moved from northern India to Sweden and then to the US, were no different when it came to securing their children’s futures.
But young Sumbul had other plans. “I always wanted to do more than that. So when I started college, I initially hoped to go to a liberal arts degree program. I also got into a six-year Bachelor of Science in Medicine program, which is very rare,” she says. “I didn’t want to go, so during the application process I gave smart answers hoping the admissions officers wouldn’t take me seriously.” That strategy did not go as planned. “That probably made me sound complete… I went in.”
But although he joined Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, mainly because his father was very interested, he did not do particularly well in the first semester. “I deliberately didn’t try very hard in school.” It was then that his father relented and told him to do what he wanted. “I changed my major to computer science with a communications minor.”
So, Dr. Desai’s career began in the media industry, where she soon transitioned to the business side and worked on strategy. But in August 2001, she was visiting her family in New York when her mother suffered a massive stroke. “She immediately went into a coma and was critically ill in ICU on a ventilator. For me that day, life fundamentally changed…”
A month later, when the city’s intensive care units were cleared to make way for survivors of the 9/11 attacks, she had to care for her mother in a rehabilitation center. “One piece of advice one of the doctors gave me on the way out was that you have to empower and really advocate for your mother, because she can’t,” recalls Dr. Desai, whose mother was in the hospital for a year and had to go back to learn everything from walking to breathing.
“That changed my perspective on health care, seeing that when you put it together in a really beautiful way, it can be a multi-faceted journey. It’s also very much a collaboration between many disciplines… the result can be really good or the collaboration doesn’t work. That was the reason I decided to go back to medical school later in life,” says Dr. Desai.
As during her communications major when she interned at Doordarshan and Time of India, Dr. Desai was also in Delhi while studying medicine. “I spent the day with some cardiologists at Escorts, then Holy Family, and also a nephrologist who had a private practice,” recalls Dr. Desai.
The complexity of the cases she saw in Delhi blew her mind and “solidified” her desire to pursue a career in health care. “Part of why she wanted to get into health care was how do you give back to people and how do you have an impact,” 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 used to go back to India almost every two years growing up. When I was younger, it was almost every summer and then as we got a little older it became every other year.”
Now, Dr. Desai feels that those visits to her grandparents put her at ease. “Every time you go back, you really go back to your roots and it grounds you, you always come back a little bit more grounded. There’s something about the culture, the people, the sense of community that we sometimes don’t have in the United States. That is something that I really like to long for and miss,” she says, adding that she is aware that this could be a romanticized view of reality. “Obviously the world is changing there as well.”
Although as a teenager she rebelled against her Indian parents’ enthusiasm for seeing her as a doctor or engineer, she now appreciates what they were trying to achieve. “The one 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 able to support myself. It was never like you had to go off and get married… it was very necessary to have a career and support yourself and find a stable way to do it. And for them, that was engineering and medicine.”
Dr. Desai agrees that her communication background helps her in her role at Apple now. “The ability to communicate is really critical, because you want to be able to take very complex topics and figure out how to break them down in a simple way so that it’s understandable,” he says, adding those on the Apple Health team “spend a lot of time obsessing over how we simplify the message that the individual receives so that he really understands what we are saying at the moment”.
She says that’s where the ability to take complex messages and simplify them as a doctor is incredibly valuable. “I think all of my experiences amounted to being able to push our teams to do that in a meaningful way.”
As someone who has been working on technology that alerts millions of people that something is wrong with their body based on the data their body generates, Dr. Desai is “honored” that people choose to wear these devices and are with them every day. .
She says it’s about empowering people to feel in control of their health. “That means both with the information we provide and the fact that privacy is fundamental and at the core of everything we do so that the individual owns the data on her device and is in control of that data. That is also part of empowerment.”
Dr. Desai is clear that Apple doesn’t want to provide information for information’s sake, “because that doesn’t do anything.” “We want the individual and the medical community to understand the scientific support for this knowledge. We really believe that this association is sacred and we want to enrich it so that the professional has more information to trust from a scientific base”, says Dr. Desai, who still teaches sometimes at Stanford and even helped with the work of Covid-19 . .
For her, these small moments of data are “almost like snapshots and images, as if you were taking your daily life with the camera.”
Dr. Desai says that doctors like her would love to have more information, and “now we have some data points that complement” what patients are saying.
“Together with traditional clinical metrics, it gives us a more complete set of data to help us make clinical decisions. Our devices are never intended for diagnosis. What they are intended for is additional evaluation or additional information so you can make more actionable decisions.”
Despite the tremendous advances in health technology in recent years, even with the acceleration in the segment due to the pandemic, Dr. Desai knows that much remains to be done. “As advanced as the technology is when it comes to health care, we’re still very early in our journey… But I do think a person now feels more empowered to ask the right questions.”