Innovating Toward a Healthier World

When health innovation expert David Aylward is asked if the developing world can learn from the U.S. healthcare system, his answer is an emphatic yes -- "They should do the opposite!"
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When health innovation expert David Aylward is asked if the developing world can learn from the U.S. healthcare system, his answer is an emphatic yes -- "They should do the opposite!"

Aylward, senior advisor for Global Health and Technology at Ashoka, is not exactly joking. For all our sophisticated technology, medical talent, and access to medicine, we all know the U.S. health-care system needs a significant upgrade. Fundamentally, the situation is not very different from that in countries on the other end of the economic spectrum.

"For different reasons, the developed world and the developing world are ending up in the same place: with health-care systems that are inefficient and not sustainable," Aylward said.

But as it turns out, this is actually reason to celebrate. It means that countries rich and poor, rural and urban, can learn from each other to bring more health to more people everywhere.

Of all the advances to look forward to in the 21st century, none may be more critical - and more promising - than those in the field of health. Never before have innovations in human networks, technology, and science been so poised to converge for the improved health of all the world's citizens.

The first step is redefining health care. "We need to move from a sickness focus to a wellness focus," said Aylward, meaning we must recognize how factors like diet, sanitation, and the environment are part of health. This goes beyond the idea of prevention - which inherently suggests merely warding off illness - and to a more holistic concept of what makes us healthy.

"True health includes proper sanitation and clean water, nutrition and active lifestyles, health education, information, data, primary and specialized care, support for the elderly, and early child development--just to name a few," explained Chloe Feinberg a health specialist with Ashoka.

Also important is to shift the focus from doctors and hospitals to patients. Why? As Aylward put it bluntly: "In the developing world they don't have the doctors and the facilities; in the developed world, we can't afford it."

Patients can very often manage their own health effectively if they have the right tools and information. There's no need for them to make a trip to see a physician. In different parts of the world, visiting a medical center is for different reasons an onerous task, and so in many, instances, distributed health care makes sense.

Combine these shifts of focus - from sickness to wellness and from medical institutions to patients - with new uses for technology and ingenious ideas, and you begin to see a future of more health for more people everywhere. Mobile phones are a big part of that future. With more than two billion mobile phones users worldwide, this technology is opening doors to exciting new ways to think about and advance health.

"Mobile phones make it possible to collect and share real-time information about health education, the availability of medicines at certain locations, and treatment choices," explained Feinberg. "Individuals look to their friends, families, and communities for support and care, moving the patient out of the clinic and closer to home, while expanding the definition of the 'health care professional."

Innovators are thinking imaginatively about the potential. Hilmi Quraishi developed mobile phone games for teens that give players higher scores for knowing more about HIV/AIDS and protecting against infection. The games are wildly popular in India and Africa and have gone a long way toward advancing HIV awareness and prevention in regions deeply affected by the disease. "We can't always reach communities through formal means," said Quraishi. "We need to have some fun."

Following on the heels of the game's success, he introduced a text-messaging program to remind rural expectant mothers of their doctor appointments and offer tips on healthy pregnancy. To encourage women to sign up (it's usually men who carry the cell phones), his company negotiated with a cell phone service provider to reward participants with a free phone call every time the household's expectant mother logs on.

Dozens of cutting-edge initiatives like this are undeniably bringing more health to the world - from remotely diagnosing and treating malaria to screening for eye conditions.

Many of these solutions first blossomed in the developing world but are now starting to penetrate our own broken, U.S. health-care system. For people with diabetes, for example, new technology enables cell phones to measure, monitor, and control glucose levels.

However, digital technology is not required for brilliant innovation. Case in point: ColaLife.

ColaLife founder Simon Berry pondered the tragic reality that you can buy a Coca-Cola anywhere in the world, even in places where one in five children die before their fifth birthday from highly preventable causes. He came up with a solution.

The result is the "AidPod" - packaging for medicines that is designed to fit precisely in the unused space between soda bottles in packing crates. The AidPods create an affordable way to piggy-back on established supply chains and bring life-saving supplies, like rehydration salts and zinc supplements, to people who need them.

This is just one of many inspiring solutions that have been entered in the global Making More Health competition at Ashoka, in partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim. The entries run the gamut from disease prevention and diagnosis to the support of healthy lifestyles, from countries all over and for populations of all kinds. To read through them is to catch a truly exciting glimpse of a better future with more health for everyone.

You can be a part of building this future. If you or someone you know has an initiative doing this type of work, enter the Making More Health competition until September 21 for a chance to win $10,000 to grow your solution.

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