Engaging Engineers to Save Lives at Birth

While engineers' impact in improving our health is unquestionable in the developed world, the same can not be said yet about their role in solving the grand challenges in health in the developing world.
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Engineers have risen to the occasion, time and again, and have outwitted imagination through the ages. The engineers of today do not just build machines, buildings and bridges, but also create life-saving diagnostics and drugs. While their impact in improving our health and well-being is unquestionable in the developed world, the same can not be said yet about their role in solving the grand challenges in health in the developing world. Their role, to date, has been relatively limited as compared to their peers in public health, medicine and community development.

Among the most prominent challenge in health in the developing world is the challenge of saving lives of mothers and newborns at birth. Somewhere in the world, a mother dies during childbirth every two minutes. The probability of a mother dying in sub-Saharan Africa is more than 100 times more than that of a mother dying in the developed world. Children who are without their mothers are far more likely to miss their health and development targets, causing a significant human, social and financial burden in both the short and the long run. With more than a quarter million mothers and about 4 million babies dying during childbirth annually in the poorest parts of the world, the challenge for the engineers of today can not be more profound. There is hardly a problem bigger than maternal and neo-natal death for the engineer who wants to change the world for the better. The Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge, sponsored jointly by the USAID, Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, UK Aid and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is challenging the innovators -- engineers and non-engineers -- around the world to come up transformative solutions to solve this grand challenge of our time. This is one more opportunity for engineers to transform the world, yet again.

The challenge in saving maternal and new-born lives is complex and multi-faceted, and requires engineering solutions integrated with policy, economics and public health. The highest number of deaths occur in places that lack the basic necessities of life, have little education and most deliveries are still at home. Lack of hygiene, high infection rates, poor access to drugs, fatalism and unavailable medical professionals, either in person or through electronic communication, all continue to make this an extremely complex problem. There are numerous system level challenges, rooted in poverty, illiteracy and poor governance that continue to hamper access and delivery of quality care. It is precisely these systems level challenges, that engineers have the capacity to address by integrating their approaches with social scientists, policy makers and public health professionals. Engineers not only create technology but also analyze systems and create appropriate system-level interventions for maximum efficiency and performance. Whether it is improvement in the supply chain of medicines through better quality control or creating simple mechanisms to connect the midwives with the nearest clinic through SMS, engineers can strengthen the system for a safe pregnancy and delivery.

Perhaps the biggest resource of all that engineers have, is access to motivated, driven and passionate young minds who are getting increasingly cognizant of the concerns of people all around the globe. We are fortunate to have engineering institutions not only in this country but across the globe that attract some of the most driven and talented young men and women. What we need to do is to engage them, at an early stage, in solving one of the grandest challenges of all. Just as an engineer should take a prototype to the field early, in order to incorporate the field challenges into the design, we need to bring this problem to the engineers early in their educational careers for context appropriate solutions. Whether the engineer is interested in creating a new drug or analyzing the supply chain of drugs, whether it is the creation of a new software that is accessible to even the most primitive of cell phones, or the creation of the newest cell phone itself, we need to excite our engineering students about problems that can save lives today in a robust and affordable manner.

Engineering institutions and curricula have always used examples and problems from the daily experiences. These problems connect the abstract with the real, the theory with the practice. It is time we use the engineering challenges in maternal and neo-natal health to challenge our engineers in and outside the classrooms. Let us bring problems to the fore that are driven both by rigor and socio-technical complexities with a direct impact on the lives of mothers and babies in resource limited settings. By doing so, we will not only foster innovation but will also create interdisciplinary thinkers who speak multiple academic and policy languages, are socially conscious and ready to change the world into a safer and more hospitable place for all families.

After all, saving lives at birth is not only a grand challenge for development, it is also a grand challenge for engineering.

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