Developing Countries Are Finding Innovative Solutions to Healthcare Challenges

Developing Countries Are Finding Innovative Solutions to Healthcare Challenges

By Allan Pamba:

Malawi might not spring to mind as a hot-bed of healthcare innovation. Neither might Bangladesh or Colombia. But that view is changing. All over developing countries, determined people are finding brilliant and creative solutions for long-standing problems.

So often the best solutions to a particular challenge come from those living and working closest to it. Difficult conditions can actually act as a breeding ground for innovation - sparking ideas that can save lives in developing countries. Some of these could also have applications in the US, Europe and other developed healthcare systems.

Take the example of a simple, low-cost, innovative life-saving kit developed by Friends of Sick Children, Malawi, called a 'baby bubble'. This 'baby bubble' - an adaptation of similar western respiratory devices - is used to help babies in respiratory distress caused by acute infections like pneumonia. World Pneumonia Day on 12 November was a timely reminder of the catastrophic impact this disease has on babies in developing countries.

The 'bubble' uses air pressure to keep babies' airways open but unlike similar devices used in the UK and US, it can't plug into wall-mounted air supplies - these often don't exist in Malawi hospitals. So the device has been cleverly designed to work on its own. It is made of durable materials that are inexpensive and easy to repair. In developed countries, a similar 'bubble' would cost at least $6,000 each but this version can be produced for approximately $400.

Think of the difference that, if widely available, these devices could make to developing countries. Similarly, the economics make sense for cash strapped health services in developed countries.

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So why isn't this being taken around the world? Too often, pockets of excellence stay small, under the radar, helping just a tiny proportion of the populations that could benefit from them. To make truly transformative steps in improving access to healthcare, we need to help these small beginnings go further; to provide the crucial funding, resources and awareness that will help their work impact millions, not just a few hundred.

That was the concept behind GSK and Save the Children's $1 million Healthcare Innovation Award. The Malawi 'bubble' is a worthy winner of a $400,000 share of the $1 million prize. With this funding and support, the charity, aided by its international partners, hopes to take its device to neonatal units across Malawi and throughout Africa, starting in Tanzania and Zambia, making a huge difference to the life chances of new born babies. If scaled up, this technology could prevent 178,000 early neonatal deaths per year on the African continent

As part of the judging process, it was exciting to see the diversity and potential of such 'grass-roots' innovation taking place across developing countries - spanning new products and devices, and services and processes.

From nearly 100 applications for the Award, 10 were shortlisted for final review by a panel made up of experts from the fields of public health, science and academia, co-chaired by Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive of GSK, and Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children. From those 10, the panel decided to award five projects a share of the $1 million prize fund.

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In addition to the Malawi project, these include a maternal newborn and child healthcare programme operating in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh; a community-level early identification programme in Mali; an innovative mobile health management system in Kenya and a special recognition award for the Kangaroo Mother Care programme, which promotes early skin-to-skin contact between mothers and their premature and newborn babies founded in Colombia.

Innovation in a developing countries context doesn't mean take the West's retreads, or export ideas that haven't worked well for us. It means innovating in developing countries for developing countries. With the right support and recognition it is this kind of entrepreneurial spirit that can truly transform healthcare.