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Using innovation to improve health in the developing world

Ramano RaoHow can Silicon Valley-style know-how help improve health and lift up the lives of the poor in the developing world? That question was the focus of a panel discussion among four distinguished speakers last week at a Stanford conference on global development and poverty.

Panelist Ramana Rao, MD, described one technologically-based solution he helped develop with colleagues in Hyderabad, India:  a 911-type emergency care system which now serves some 750 million people across the South Asian country.

Though the system, users can call a single number – 108 – to summon an ambulance and team of skilled providers who can provide treatment en route to the nearest hospital.  The system, a public-private partnership known as GVK EMRI (Emergency Management and Research Institute), uses advanced call center technology, in which trained operators typically respond to calls within the first ring and relay them immediately to paramedics and emergency medical technicians on ambulances in the field, Rao told an audience of more than 200 people at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The system uses Google maps to help quickly locate patients. And the designers have introduced a mobile device app, which can be easily downloaded to call the service and which can be used to track the location of a caller during the first hour, the critical “golden hour” for treating trauma patients, he said.

Panel moderator Paul Yock, MD, PhD, noted the system is far more effective than the fragmented, 911 emergency system in the United States. “It’s a marvelous example of technology leap-frogging what we do here in this country,” said Yock, founder and director of Stanford Biodesign.

The Indian system was made possible in part by the soaring popularity of cell phones in India, used by 950 million people, including the poor.

“The mobile phone has been the most transformational technological advance in the developing world in the last 15 years,” noted panelist Rajiv Shah, MD, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

In developing new technologies for use in poor countries, panelist Kevin Starr, managing director of the Mulago Foundation, said the key is to zero in on an approach that works, which addresses a local need, which will reach those who need it and which people will use in real-life situations. In examining potential new technologies, Starr said it’s also important to “treat the poor as a customer.” The foundation identifies and funds promising technologies in health, development and conservation with the goal of bringing them into use on a large scale in poor countries.

In one example, his group set out to find a better cook stove, as indoor smoke generated by wood-burning cooking fires is a common cause of fatal respiratory infections in the developing world. In evaluating various models, he said only one really met the test of being practical and effectively reducing emissions.

For innovators working on technological solutions in the developing world, Shah advised that they be “very confident because the range of problems in extreme poverty and vulnerability that can be addressed with science and innovation and the Valley’s can-do attitude is very broad. I’d be very confident and very humble, too, because development is a discipline… For every success story, there is a challenging experience from which we can all collectively learn.”

The conference was sponsored by Stanford’s Global Development and Policy (GDP) Initiative, a university-wide project of the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Previously: A look at “India’s medical miracle,” the largest ambulance service in the world
Photo of Ramana Rao by Siddharth Jain

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