Health technology is not enough

It seems like every day there is a new, innovative technology or invention created to provide health benefits in developing countries – along with a crowd of new organizations to advocate for their use and to seek funding for the distribution of the new product. Organizations have been established to promote everything from clean cookstoves and solar lighting, to ceramic water filters and software enabling communication of medical information. And a lot of money is being invested in developing health-promoting technologies – the Gates Foundation, for example, has committed $100 million “to encourage scientists worldwide to expand the pipeline of ideas to fight our greatest health challenges” – projects so far include a night light to repel mosquitoes, drug additives to prevent drug resistance, and a low-cost malaria diagnostic test.

While many of these technologies and innovations likely have great potential to improve health outcomes in developing countries, there seems to be a relative lack of focus on the issue of access. After all, technology is no good if it’s not used. I also find the strong focus on new technologies interesting given the current insufficient coverage in developing countries of technologies that already exist and have proven potential.

An organization I’ve run into which takes the opposite approach is VisionSpring. They focus on very basic technology ubiquitous in the developed world – eyeglasses and equipment to test eyesight – and are focusing on the issue of access. An estimated 733 million people worldwide have poor vision or are blind, which according to one estimate has a global economic impact of $3 trillion. They use a microfranchising model to distribute affordable eyeglasses through local entrepreneurs. Since 2001, the organization as sold 400,000 pairs of eyeglasses and currently has 9,000 active entrepreneurs. This method of distribution is meant to be sustainable, scalable, and builds local economic capacity rather than destroying existing supply chains (which has occurred after mass free distribution of items like mosquito nets).

So, along with the focus on health technologies, the issue of access should not fall by the wayside – I believe many of the organizations would benefit from a more overt focus on access as well as technology development. And more organizations and funders should follow the example of VisionSpring – taking proven basic technologies common in the developed world and making them more widely available in developing countries.

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