Dr. Priya Agrawal
Position: Executive Director, Vaccines & Women’s Health
Organization: Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp.
Priya Agrawal is Executive Director, Vaccines & Women’s Health, for Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. An obstetrician and gynecologist and global women’s health expert, she previously served as Executive Director of Merck for Mothers and as Director of Research and Development for the Women and Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health. She was Obstetric Lead on the World Health Organization’s Safe Childbirth Checklist Program in India — a social enterprise focused on delivering high quality, affordable maternal and child health services in the slums of Nairobi — leveraging process innovation. She has worked and traveled in more than 45 countries using the introduction of simple and sustainable innovations to improve the health outcomes for underserved women and their families.
“Dr. Agrawal harnesses the best of the private sector to improve public health — like using outsourced supply chains to drive contraceptive stockouts rates from 80% to 2% in Senegal as part of a $50M partnership with the Gates Foundation.“
Describe your contributions to and achievements in family planning.
Access to modern contraceptives is a bedrock global health issue and is essential for girls and women’s empowerment. Therefore, as Executive Director of Merck for Mothers (known as MSD for Mothers outside the U.S. and Canada), the 10-year, $500m global initiative to end preventable maternal deaths, I have made it a priority focus area.
For more than a decade, I have used my education and training in obstetrics, gynecology and public health to develop and advance innovative solutions to improve girls and women’s health. Prior to my current role leading Merck for Mothers (MfM), I was the obstetric advisor to the WHO/Harvard Safe Childbirth Checklist. Earlier, I was director at the Women and Health Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, and medical director of the social enterprise Jacaranda Health.
Today, I am championing access to modern contraceptives even more intensively because it is truly the game changer in reducing maternal mortality. Under my leadership, MfM has improved access to quality maternal healthcare and family planning services for an estimated 5.8 million women globally.
I am particularly proud of our private sector role in Senegal, where we’re working with the national government, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and IntraHealth International to support the successful nationwide implementation of an innovative distribution model – adapted from the commercial sector – for all contraceptive products. The crux of this project is better data, outsourcing to private operators and performance based financing.
As a result of this cost effective supply chain model, a range of contraceptive options are reaching the critical “last mile” and are now in the hands of women and men who want them. In just two years, stockout rates in Senegal have fallen from 80 percent to less than two percent, improving access for more than 3.2 million women across the country – and contributing to Senegal’s eight percentage point increase in its contraceptive prevalence rate.
What sparked your passion for family planning?
I am the person I am today because of my own mother’s access (albeit discreet) to modern contraceptives. This enabled her to space the births of my siblings and me and to ensure that our family had the resources to provide us with the highest quality education. What I have achieved thus far is due to my own access to modern contraceptives – allowing me to choose when I have children of my own.
In addition, very early on in my rural development work in India and Africa, I saw how women’s ability – or inability – to fulfill their potential was linked to their control of their reproductive health. I witnessed firsthand the despair on the faces of women who had a baby on their hip and had faced death in their last few deliveries only to find out that they were pregnant again. Why? Because they could not access something as simple as a pill or injection or one of the many types of effective modern contraceptives available.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your family planning efforts, and what have you done to overcome it?
One of the greatest challenges I’ve encountered is how limited our thinking has been around access to contraception. While there has been broad – and deserved – attention to the benefits of family planning to improve women’s wellbeing, rights and economic empowerment, the tremendous impact it can have on maternal mortality is overlooked.
In particular, post-pregnancy family planning is an important opportunity to meet women’s needs and help ensure that they can space a subsequent pregnancy or prevent future pregnancies if desired. That’s why Merck for Mothers has integrated family planning into our maternal health programs and will expand our efforts in post-pregnancy family planning.
What is your (country/region/city)’s biggest challenge in family planning, and how can it be addressed?
Too often, women don’t know what options are available to them or how to get the services they need, and when they seek care and contraceptives, they return empty-handed due to stockouts. At MfM we have the mantra: Choice, voice and stocked shelves. We take a patient-centric approach and are developing innovations that empower and inform women, regardless of where they live.
What do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years?
Merck for Mothers is at the midpoint of our 10-year initiative. In the next five years, I will continue to work toward developing and scaling transformational healthcare solutions so that women (and men) can receive quality care, including access to modern contraceptives. In particular, I plan to engage with the larger global health community about the importance of ensuring that people are informed and empowered to improve their own health outcomes. I will also continue to make the case for why we should leverage the expertise and capabilities that drive success in business to save and improve more lives.