There are a few conventional routes to becoming a CEO. Some make progress through the ranks of a company to reach the top position, while others are hired externally with a specific skill set in mind. Diverse backgrounds are to be expected from those who reside in the C-suite but Dr Joseph Saba, CEO of healthcare access company Axios International, may have one of the most unique journeys to corporate leadership.
After training as a medical doctor in Lebanon, specialising in infectious disease, health management and statistics, Joseph decided to leave the war zone he had lived in for more than a decade and move to France in 1986. “I had enough. I’d become a doctor to help people live but I wasn’t having an impact in that environment, so I moved to where I could make a difference,” he explains.
Later, in 1993, Joseph joined the World Health Organization and moved to Rwanda, then to Geneva and joined UNAIDS, the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, where he coordinated an international group that searched for ways to stop the transmission of AIDS from a mother to her child. The research produced by Joseph and the Group was extremely effective and proved that treatment with antiretrovirals during pregnancy prevented transmission from the mother to the child. Furthermore, it was proven that antiretrovirals taken for life kept patients with HIV alive and turned HIV/AIDS from a deadly to a chronic disease.
In a bid to ensure that those people living in developing countries have access to this revolutionary treatment, he took the assignment to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to make this happen.
When care is genuinely collaborative, we ‘win’ together around patient outcomes.
“There was a tremendous amount of negotiation to get all the companies on board. Not all agreed initially, but we started with three and others followed,” he recalls. “I travelled the world during this time developing a deep understanding of how healthcare systems work in different countries. I saw the high patient need and the rising cost of innovative treatment in parallel.”
Joseph started to notice a combination of factors including increasing life expectancy, a growing number of people being diagnosed with chronic diseases, as well as the rising cost of therapy. “It wasn’t sustainable,” he points out. The overburdened healthcare systems in many countries around the world were evidence to him that new models were urgently needed to ensure vital medicine is accessible to those who need it.
“That’s how Axios started – to help patients break down the barriers in accessing health care.”
Like virtually all businesses, the economic crisis starting in 2007 also impacted the operations of Axios International. In 2010 the firm decided to transition from a hybrid philanthropic model to become a full-fledged private business following a creative access strategy.
The potential of segmenting patients based on their financial ability to pay was clear to Joseph. “I understood the day would come when the pharmaceutical industry would have no choice but to provide access; it was inevitable. We were the first to push access programs as a strategic advantage and now having an access strategy is increasingly important for pharmaceutical companies,” he says.
In the time before the creative access strategy was introduced, no matter where in the world medicine was being sold, a one-price-fits-all pricing model was in use. Due to the groundbreaking approach Axios International took, there was no road map to follow and plans had to be built from the ground up.
“Today, almost 10 million patients in 100 countries have benefited from our programs. COVID-19 brought many healthcare challenges that our employees dealt with in the most fantastic ways, even at the peak of the crisis. I’m immensely proud of that.”
Today, almost 10 million patients in 100 countries have benefited from our programs.
Despite all of the impactful work done by Axios International, its most vital work is achieved when working closely with valued partners. Joseph recalls how during the HIV epidemic patients, social workers, psychologists and peer educators all joined together to help patients receive the best care possible. “We seem to have forgotten these lessons or thought it only applies to HIV – the patients we serve need the same level of attention,” he insists.
In all of the programs run by Axios International a major effort is made to work with all stakeholders including physicians, pharmaceutical companies, support groups, charities and governments to create strong support networks. There’s no question that collaboration is central to reaching the best patient outcomes and ensuring that as many people as possible can access effective health care.
“Collaboration with all stakeholders, public and private, is essential. We need to work together to ensure the patient gets the optimal treatment. When care is genuinely collaborative we ‘win’ together around patient outcomes,” Joseph says.
Hospitals faced unprecedented challenges in the past two years as they dealt with an avalanche of COVID-19 cases but thanks to the efforts of staff at Axios International, all its patients around the world received their medication. Now Joseph and his team are focusing their resources to help healthcare systems refocus care around patients.
That’s how Axios started – to help patients break down the barriers in accessing health care.
“Focusing on what happens to the patient outside the hospital and expanding where care happens while addressing how gathering and utilising data with digital services can serve patients’ needs is vital,” he asserts.
While COVID-19 has certainly contributed to health issues, it has also highlighted longstanding problems in health systems. Much of the work undertaken by the organisation in improving healthcare access is now being embraced by others in the industry in part due to the results of the pandemic.
“We were already working in all these areas and preparing solutions but there is a much higher willingness to engage in these conversations now, not just with the pharmaceutical companies but all stakeholders involved,” Joseph reveals.
The Axios International workforce also plays an essential role in ensuring that the goal of giving as many people access to health care is realised. According to Joseph, by having a diverse employee base unique skills are brought into the business and moved to where they are most needed.
A clear and well-defined mission helps unify the company’s workforce and convey a spirit of solidarity and collaboration, with staff taking personal responsibility for each patient they serve. “It gives a clear bias for action with little patience for bureaucratic debate,” he adds.
When Joseph was a young doctor with entrepreneurial ideas he received a piece of advice that still informs his work today. “A family friend and a very successful businessman told me once, ‘In your business, focus on delivering value and having an impact. Money will follow. If your focus is on making money alone, you will lose your way at some point,’” he remembers. “This advice has guided my work ever since and I applied it systematically in my 25 years with Axios.”