How to Foster Low-Tech Health Innovation

A Seattle non-profit's model for uniting public health and the private sector, and what they've come up with

Anurag Mairal, director of technology solutions at PATH Health Technologies, says that it's time to start looking at low-cost innovations in healthcare differently. What should the road map be for an innovation? Should the product debut in a developing country first and then, evolve for the developed market or vice versa?

"We're at a point now, that companies cannot just keep adding bells and whistles to the same product to garner sales," Mairal told me.

So, given the increasing costs of healthcare in the U.S. and in Europe, companies are looking increasingly at simpler solutions that have the capacity to criss-cross border with a few tweaks.

PATH is a Seattle-based non-profit. But it's working with the commercial sector to scale, distribute, and market its innovations. That's Mairal's task. He's a new addition to the PATH team, after a noted career with Johnson & Johnson companies. He is symbolic of this merger between social impact and commercial viability.

His approach includes disruptive innovation (disrupt the global health system by changing the cost equation, moving away from a grants-based approach to a commercial-approach) and developing a market for said innovations. It's not enough to innovate. Must build a system to introduce these innovations to the market, advertise them, create distribution chains, and get them to the end-user.

PATH was started in the 1970s by three researchers: Gordon Duncan, Rich Mahoney, and Gordon Perkin. Their aim was quite the same: bring together public health and the private sector. Their focus, though, was slightly different: population control. So, their first innovations addressed population overload -- interventions to curb birth rates -- and were focused on Asia.

Since then, they've expanded their focus, looking at nutrition, water, sanitation, vaccinations, and reproductive health. Here are some of the innovations that PATH has piloted:


River blindness tests

riverblindness test.JPG

It looks like a pregnancy test but it's designed to identify river blindness (or a tropical disease, "onchocerciasis"), which is a preventable condition that has affected 37 million people globally, many in poor, rural communities situated near a water source. With a grant from the Gates Foundation for $1.8 million, PATH created this device. Traditionally, a health worker would have have to draw a vial blood, take it to a clinic where it can be processed, and then report the results several days later. The later strip, however, requires just one drop of blood from a finger prick and results are available in 20 minutes. Ideal for rural health workers.


Fortified rice


Rice is a popular grain, eaten by half the world's population. Fortified rice includes micronutrients such as iron, thiamin, zinc, vitamin A, and folic acid. PATH partnered with food purveyors in India, Brazil, and Colombia to produce the fortified grains to combat iron deficiencies, malnourishment, and anemia. Now, the grains are being coupled with school meal programs, such as in Burundi, to ensure that they reach school kids in low-income communities.


Mobile-phone milk pasteurization


Still in the works, FoneAstra is a system that uses mobile phones to monitor flash-heat pasteurization of donor breast milk. When a mother's milk is not safe to consume or is simply not available, human milk banks (HMB) fill the need; WHO supports the use of HMBs to address malnourished infants. However, the pasteurization process is tricky and healthcare facilities are hesitant to use this donor milk, unsure of its safety. By having a cell phone attached to the pasteurization device, FoneAstra enables these health clinics to monitor data on pasteurization, assuring them that the milk is safe to use. A pilot is under way in South Africa with the Human Milk Banking Association.


Presented by

Esha Chhabra is a journalist covering India's polio-eradication efforts on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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