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Biomed anlysis: "Frugal innovation for good health" PDF Print E-mail


Innovation has much to offer the developing world, but the key is for it to be driven by the needs of the people whose lives it aims to improve.

The developing world needs support for low-tech health innovations that do not compromise on effectiveness.

The global economic recession has left many industries cutting costs, hitting science funding hard. Against this backdrop, a new movement of 'frugal science' is taking hold, in which researchers are hunting for the most cost-effective health technologies for developing countries.

Cost is rarely the only limiting factor; health technologies need to be 'low-tech' — as electricity supplies can be erratic, or hospital environments not always sterile, for instance — without being 'low-spec'.

The aim of the frugal science movement is to foster 'frugal innovation' in which the goal is to find the simplest and cheapest way of doing something without compromising effectiveness.

Broad approach to innovation.

An example of a process innovator is Asm Amjad Hossain, a Bangladeshi immunisation officer who won the Gates Vaccine Innovation Award. He raised immunisation rates in his two districts from 67 to 85 per cent and 60 to 79 per cent in a year by registering pregnant women with their expected date of delivery, location and phone number, so that vaccinators knew when and where the children were born, and how to contact their mothers.

The report encourages health researchers to be holistic in their vision, incorporating innovation in agriculture (which can do much to alleviate health problems such as malnutrition) or road safety (traffic accidents are a leading cause of death in India, for instance).

Appreciating what works

Because these innovations have largely been driven by small-scale entrepreneurs, progress has been fragmented. However, governments and international organisations need to appreciate the benefits the entrepreneurs are pioneering if the approach is to make greater impact.

For instance, The Lancet report suggests that governments should assess new health technologies before funding them or agreeing to scale them up, to ensure that they are appropriate for the population.

Donors, meanwhile, should consider what medical devices are sent to poor countries —sending equipment that is difficult to use can be futile. A report by the WHO found that in some countries as much as 80 per cent of medical devices are donations from richer countries. But too often, hospitals are not able to use them properly because of a lack of training or an unstable power supply, and the machinery languishes unused.

Universities and research institutes could play their part by helping to assess healthcare technologies through simulation and modelling techniques.

Innovation has much to offer the developing world, but the key is for it to be driven by the needs of the people whose lives it aims to improve.

Adapted from http://www.scidev.net/en/new-technologies/opinions/biomed-analysis-frugal-innovation-for-good-health.html

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