By: Erin Flemming
In developed countries, technology can help streamline the healthcare system. But, extending technological innovation to international communities can be a challenging feat, especially in the areas of usefulness and affordability. Paul Yager, the Hunter and Dorothy Simpson Endowed Chair of the Department of Engineering at the University of Washington, served as moderator of a discussion with innovators in technology development in global health on Sunday at the Western Region International Health Conference.
Sailesh Chutani, CEO and co-founder of MobiSante, was the first speaker at the “Improving Global Health with New Technology” panel.
MobiSante is a company that manufactures a mobile phone ultrasound. This device costs nearly $8,000, and is a portable version of the classic ultrasound machine.
The MobiSante device is aimed at-risk communities, where a lack of pre-natal care can lead to a high risk for complications stemming from pregnancy. The device works in the most remote of villages — making it possible to perform an ultrasound without a network connection.
Chutani said after a long creative process with conversations with MobiSante stakeholders and customers, it all came down to the simplicity of the device. He said the biggest evidence of success for MobiSante was when the company worked with community clinics within Washington. He said when these clinics were willing to provide monetary support for MobiSante, they knew they had a technology that was valuable.
“Community clinics are not filled with cash … they really resonated the potential of MobiSante,” Chutani said.
Another technology that could help at-risk communities get valuable information comes in the form of a colorful box, not much bigger than two decks of cards. This box is the Talking Book, an audio computer designed to improve access to locally-important information to highly illiterate communities.
The Talking Book device is a simple box that allows users to listen, record and copy data that is relevant to their communities. The device, which is programmed with many different languages, doesn’t have an LCD screen, which may be unneeded technology to people who may not be able to read, said Schmidt.
The information stored on the device, which costs about $25, can range from agricultural tips, to stories, to health advice. Schmidt said the devices, if used, can relay valuable information, and showed pictures of flourishing crops from farmers who changed their farming strategies thanks to suggestions from the Talking Book.
Getting feedback on the different programs the Talking Book offers is simple, Schmidt said. He is able to monitor how often people listen to tracks, and users of the gadget are able to rate each track either “up,” if the information was useful, or “down,” if the message was not helpful.
However, making the potential users of the Talking Book devices perceive the information available on the devices as valuable has been a challenge for Literacy Bridge. Schmidt said once he asked an African man if he would pay $1 a month to get continuously updated farming techniques on the Talking Book devices. The man responded that he would do it if he had the money.
Then, Schmidt asked him if he would pay the same price to get continuously updated music on the device.
“I want it,” the man said, according to Schmidt.
Schmidt said he wanted to make sure nothing was lost in translation, so he verified the man’s response with the translator. His statements stood true.
“The harder it is for someone to want to listen to something, the more you have to invest in making something interesting,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt then played a lively African song. But instead of being about love, friendship, hardships or tradition, this song was about diarrhea. A translation of the chorus reads “you need to take the baby to the clinic if he has diarrhea,” Schmidt said.
Making a song about diarrhea isn’t conventional by any means, but it may be the most effective way to get important information to at-risk communities using technology like the Talking Book, he added.
The third speaker at this session also spoke to the importance of creating a product that holds strong value for consumers. Shirley Villadiego, a public health specialist with PATH, said when developing new technology, even non-profits should focus on creating a durable, simple and cost-effective product that is competitive with existing technology.
“Even in the public sector you have to be able to differentiate yourself from the competition,” Villadiego said.
PATH, which operates a diagnostic laboratory and health technology development shop in Seattle, works to develop solutions to global health risks such as post-partum hemorrhage and umbilical cord hygiene.
Villadiego said having teams that span disciplines is important in order to create a end product that is useful and competitive in a global market. She said at PATH, engineers, clinicians and MBAs work alongside each other on projects.
“Most of our success is due to the fact that we partner with other people,” she added.