Imagine two babies being born at the exact same time: a little girl in Sweden and a baby boy in Mozambique. What are their chances for a long, healthy life?
In the Scandinavian country of the easily assemblable IKEA furniture and the most secure car in the world, life expectancy in 2015 reached 81.98 years, while in the South African Mozambique with 11.64 billion dollar in public debt and deep political insecurity, life expectancy in 2015 was only 52.94 years.
In case one of the babies falls ill, the differences in their chances for getting to the doctor in time and receiving adequate treatment is also striking. In Sweden, 328 doctors are available for 100,000 people while in Mozambique there are only 3 doctors for the same amount of people in need.
Certainly, there are significant differences in the general social, economic or political background within both the developed and developing country-groups, but unfortunately it could be considered as a fact that the population of developing countries have to face much worse health conditions, their life expectancy is much lower, and they are in dire need for creative and innovative medical solutions.
So who and how can help the baby boy in Mozambique?
In 2013, the WHO released a report about how innovative and still affordable medical technologies should reach underdeveloped regions. Unfortunately, the conclusion was that there are still too many barriers for which developers have not yet found the solutions. The greatest impediments are the lack of conditions for on-site manufacturing, administrative hindrances such as receiving regulatory clearance or certainly the biggest issue: financing.
And of course, it does not need any more explanation that modern technologies which could solve some of the biggest medical challenges in the developing world are expensive. Besides, according to a 2016 study, medical technology development and sales are concentrated in high income countries. In 2009, approximately 75 percent of the sales of medical devices concentrated in the U.S., Japan, and Europe. Currently, only 13 percent of manufacturers are located in low and middle-income countries. This further widens the inequality gap and draws the attention of developers to regions with huge sales potential instead of regions in need of medical innovation.
Thus, only a handful of entrepreneurs think that it is rational enough to bring disruptive — smart, cheap and better — (medical) products to the developing world. In spite of the fact that disruption is often not about overtly expensive, state-of-the-art, sci-fi solutions, but really smart, cheap ways of solving problems that bring the cost of care significantly down. In any case, according to Clay Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, a disruptive product addresses a market that previously could not be served or it offers a simpler, cheaper or more convenient alternative to an existing product.
In the developing world, where resources are scarce, ideas truly matter. Thus, as in the age of discoveries where only the most courageous knights were able to cross the “seven seas,” only those with the most disruptive ideas have a chance to really make a change. This approach often allows technology in poorer regions to leapfrog developed one. As an example, mobile banking in Africa is with quantum leaps ahead of Western standards, because it provides a uniquely good fit for the problems of the continent.
Small organizations with big ideas
There are already inspiring projects and startups which in spite of the administrative difficulties, financial burdens or other problems, improve medical technology by making it affordable in the developed world.
Globally, over 30 million people need mobility devices such as prosthetics, while 80 percent of the world’s amputees do not have access to modern prosthetics. One of the solutions comes from the awesome idea behind the e-NABLING the Future project. As Jennifer Owen, the owner of the website describes its essence, it is basically a global network of passionate volunteers who by sharing 3-D printing designs, video tutorials and other information about building prosthetic hands enable volunteers, doctors or anyone on the field to make a difference by literally “giving a helping hand” to those in need. Success stories come from all over the world: there are now children and adults with super-hero style or more traditionally shaped prosthetic hands in Chile, Ghana, Indonesia and many more countries.
The potential in 3-D printing mesmerized also NGOs working in the field of medicine. Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors Without Borders, is investigating how 3-D printing and virtual reality technologies can help the organization set up field hospitals that are well suited to their environment and the situation being addressed. In addition to their traditional 2-D plan drawings, the team also created 3-D models and a virtual reality reproduction of a recently designed facility in the Philippines that was built to help people after a 2013 typhoon. In Haiti, the organization Field Ready is working on 3-D printing on-demand birthing kits, including umbilical clamps, simple little things such as oxygen splitters for oxygen tanks, and they also encourage small scale manufacturing of agricultural tools via 3-D printing. Another startup, re3D under its Give-a-Bot program offers its Gigabot — an affordable desktop printer — to local communities or organizations with “big ideas.”
To address the poor patient-doctor ratio in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa and to avoid the need for patients to travel long distances to gain access to treatment, for example Himore Medical in Cameroon has designed CardioPad, which is a wireless solution enabling the efficient monitoring of cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) from a long distance throught Bluetooth and a mobile network. Botswana-based Deaftronics attempts to tackle a similar problem. It has manufactured the first solar-powered hearing aid unit, Solar Ear. This technology is game-changing in a country where there are only 12 audiologists and five audiology centers for a population of over two million.
In India, Saathi developed a fully biodegradable sanitary pad with the core made from waste banana tree fiber. Through such a groundbreaking innovation local farmers are supported as their work is needed to the production of pads while the biodegradable waste does not harm the environment. With the spread of Saathi pads around India, it becomes feasible to make annually 108,000 tons of such waste environmentally friendly.
What can we do for him?
As patients and doctors, we can always support innovation which goes beyond the hype (e.g., Theranos).
Beyond the financial and general support, we need more courses as the one provided by D-Lab Health teaching medical technologies for the developing world and thus broadening the horizons of innovators, educators, and other experts.
And of course, we need to sew the following words on the flag of 21st-century knights who want to change medicine and medical treatment in the developing world: disruptive ideas, curiosity, and courage.
Bertalan Mesko is the medical futurist and author of The Guide to the Future of Medicine and My Health: Upgraded: Revolutionary Technologies To Bring A Healthier Future. He can be reached at the Medical Futurist.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com