Innovations in Healthcare at Home and Abroad

| January 10, 2013 | 0 Comments

Image credit: US Embassy to New Zealand.

The past two decades were witness to the development of countless new companies as an entrepreneurial spirit swept across the United States. And luckily, the venture capitalists and innovators responsible for this spirit show no sign of slowing. New technologies are being constantly developed, and a new “next big thing” hits the market every day. Entrepreneur Magazine reports predictions of increased investments in business and healthcare IT for 2013, expecting more capital to flow into start-ups in these industries in the months ahead.

A second—perhaps not unrelated—defining element of the past two decades is healthcare. There have been immeasurable improvements but also vast shortcomings in the provision of care in the United States. Some of these new technologies and “next big things” of the last twenty years have been medical devices, drug technologies, and innovations improving quality of care. But the US healthcare system is fraught with inefficiency and ineffectiveness and needs to be a continued primary target of such innovation.

Similar entrepreneurial trends have been found in other developed countries as well. However, applying the venture-capital model in developing and third-world nations is an important next step in sparking innovation in these countries, as well as in promoting global health. Despite the fact that increasing numbers of Americans are seeking medical procedures and care abroad, where it is often less expensive and people are frequently able to receive better care (a phenomenon known as medical tourism), many countries do not have the same fervor for healthcare innovation that is found in the United States.

Importantly, there is often not the same level of financial support for entrepreneurship in the developing world as there is found in the United States. The US government, as well as large American charities, companies, and non-profits, often promote innovation by providing grants and award monies to startups with promising ideas. But these funds often end up backing American entrepreneurs. In fact, President Obama recently signed the 2012 Defense Authorization Act, restricting the Small Business Innovation Research funding program’s annual $2 billion awards for technology development to be eligible for only “domestic business concerns.”

However, it is necessary that we use these funds to drive innovation that can be implemented in other countries as well. A focus on simple, sustainable solutions may be beneficial to the more basic systems found in the developing world while still solving extremely complex and urgent problems. In the United States, we often tend to overlook or undervalue the simple solution.

For example, the Hippo Water Roller is one innovation that, though simplistic in design, has improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Africans who lack easy access to a water supply. These rolling water drums were developed locally and allow easy transport of five times the amount of water a person walking to gather water could traditionally carry. Not only does this work to solve issues of hygiene and sanitation, but it also requires less time spent transporting water altogether, allowing the women and children onto whom the task of water collection usually falls to utilize that time to pursue educational and economic opportunities instead. Simple innovations such as this will provide on-the-ground resources for developing populations, and they will hopefully encourage local entrepreneurial spirit as well.

American healthcare tends to focus on the treatment of disease, with less emphasis on prevention. Though the United States is now moving in the direction of preventative medicine, the healthcare system was initially set up with a focus on treatment in mind. In many developing countries, healthcare systems are in the process of being established and these nations can learn from past mistakes of countries like the United States. They can create systems that are geared toward prevention—in addition to treatment—as they train new providers, build infrastructure, and establish standards of care.

Additionally, there are lessons that developed nations can learn from these developing countries. We can learn about the cost-saving strategies developing countries use and the general frugality with which they approach healthcare, forced to do so simply because of their limited resources. We can learn the value in thinking about the simple solution as opposed to the costly solution.

This opportunity for exchange and mutual benefit between the United States and the developing world is key: we must channel our entrepreneurial and innovative energies into developing healthcare systems with frugality and efficiency, and into finding simple solutions to complex problems. Perhaps this will turn out to be “the next big thing” in healthcare innovation.

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