What experience made you realize that you wanted a career that focuses on creating impact?
As a child I was always angered by anything I felt was unfair, and that translated into a sense of purpose. In college I went on a service trip to Belize, and became aware of how unequal living circumstances were between my life and the lives of the people I met there. That was when I realized that helping to alleviate some of that type of inequality was much more important than anything else I could anticipate doing in my lifetime.
Please describe your history and relationship with social innovation, highlighting your most transformative experience(s) in the social impact sector.
I ended up going to medical school and pursued international health work. I traveled back to the same area of Belize and participated in a medical mission. That solidified my desire to make an impact in healthcare, but I wanted to make a measurable, lasting, sustainable impact, which I didn’t get from that particular mission. That was a key experience because instead of simply being deflated, I was instead inspired to do it better. I got interested in surgery and eventually stumbled upon ophthalmology which includes eye surgeries such as cataract, cornea transplants and glaucoma surgeries. I traveled to Liberia with a group and headed the ophthalmology preparation team, and was blown away by the impact you can have on a person, their ability to participate in society, and thus the function of the society itself, by curing blindness with a quite simple and low risk surgery. I literally emailed and called ophthalmologists who were traveling abroad until they agreed to have me along with them, borrowed money for plane tickets or searched for funding, and in watching these doctors I realized the role I could play in organizing eye care camps and teaching programs internationally. I was given the opportunity for funding for a trip to Mongolia if I could start a program there. Nine years later, the location in Mongolia has a full ophthalmology training program, and we are working to start an eye bank for cornea transplants funded by a US agency. I traveled back this July to start a glaucoma training program. We also bring multiple other medical specialties, doctors, nurses, etc. in addition to ophthalmology, and it’s growing each year.
Elaborate on a challenging situation that made you question whether you were headed in the right direction. What resources did you leverage and how did you keep pushing forward?
I was working every night after my clinical rotations on preparing a trip to Liberia in addition to several other extracurriculars, and my work in medical school suffered. I realized at that point that it’s not enough to work hard and power through to ‘do everything’ or to take on every opportunity that flies your way. You have to define priorities and constantly refine them, judge, plan carefully what you commit to. Knowing when to say no is just as important as when to say yes. You judge what you can realistically take care of while still taking care of your own basic needs and other commitments, then commit to that completely. The rest, you have to say no, or establish a team to work with you, so you can share the load with others. Instead of doing so much myself, I should have fallen back on my teammates and let them know I wasn’t sleeping or studying enough. Now I’m quite judicious about what I commit to, in terms of the value it brings to further my goals and aspirations, and the value I feel I can add to the project. If it’s not for me, I pass along the opportunity to colleagues and try to help recruit others for the project if I can.
What do you envision are some of the challenges facing healthcare? How can social enterprise help address them?
Access to training is a big issue in many places. Despite our many problems with health care, one significant advantage we have in the US is excellent training programs for subspecialists. In other places, such as Mongolia for example, no matter how hard you work as a doctor, there simply aren’t training programs for things like cornea transplants. We are still working on a sustainable way for them to obtain corneal tissue. Thus, unless opportunities are offered to the Mongolian people from the outside, they have no way to improve on their current status. There would be generations of people with reversible blindness who never get treated. My personal goal is to foster educational programs for eye surgeons abroad, both by traveling to teach and establish infrastructure locally, and hosting international docs at my practice for periods of training. If they then teach two people who teach two other people and so on, and if the infrastructure is there to support them, pretty soon we’ll have sustainable local training programs to cure or prevent blinding conditions, and also they will inspire a younger generation to become ophthalmologists or scientists.
Who is a social innovator in the healthcare sector that inspires you?
Cecile Richards, for providing affordable healthcare as well as health education to women around the country in a scalable manner. She has to work at the intersection of medicine and politics, and does so in a very successful and powerful way.
Some individuals use metrics to evaluate themselves while others rely on intangibles such as reflection. How do you measure your impact and how does that inform your work?
Measuring impact is essential for securing funding for a project, whether funding comes through grants, private fundraising, or other means. In healthcare, projects should have a measureable outcome whether it’s a medical outcome, knowledge or skills transfer, device distribution, etc. We do before and after tests for our educational lectures, we can account in the operating room for the ability of a surgeon who has learned to perform surgery, the number of doctors we train in diagnostic skills and the number of patients they then treat, vision improvement in our patients, the number of surgeries we do, the medicines distributed, the amount of blindness we both cure and prevent. At the highest level, projects like mine aim to measure the economic impact of alleviating the burden of blindness in a society, so that is an ongoing goal.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Follow your gut. If you feel great while working on a particular project compared to others, it may be both because you truly find reward in it, and also because you are good at it, it plays to your strengths. You might have found your niche, and you may be uniquely poised to make a big impact in that area, so don’t ignore it.
What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to a budding social entrepreneur?
Ask for and pursue opportunities; don’t wait for them to be offered to you. In asking for things like charitable contributions, donations, publicity, collaborations, or even jobs or academic positions, you may need to step out of your comfort zone and ask. Don’t underestimate the power of a phone call or better, a face to face meeting with the most senior person you can figure out how to reach. I’ve had cases where the VP of a company gave me a totally different answer from the charitable giving department (who didn’t want to give me his phone number), or the head of a hospital gave a different answer from a technical department – perhaps because the more senior people had both the vision and the flexibility to say yes, to change the official rule book because something in what I was proposing resonated with them.
Laura Voicu, MD is a glaucoma and cornea specialist whose interests span international ophthalmology, scaleable and portable interventions in ophthalmology and healthcare, and the applications of technology for decreasing healthcare costs. She was initially drawn to international humanitarian work during a high school trip to Belize for a house building project. Since then, she has revisited Belize and traveled to Liberia, Rwanda, and Mongolia for medical and surgical missions, large-scale eye screenings, cataract and cornea camps, and teaching life-saving cornea transplantation to international ophthalmologists. Laura pursued undergraduate and graduate coursework at Wesleyan and her medical training at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Duke University, and UCLA’s Doheny Eye Institute.