Why embracing constraints leads to better health solutions

August 28, 2019 by Jeff Bernson

How do we overcome the hurdles that keep life-saving products from those who need them most?

It’s disappointing to see health innovation stop short of its full potential.

Every year, more than 70,000 women die because of post-partum hemorrhage—excessive bleeding following childbirth. Today, the best and most available treatment for post-partum hemorrhage is a drug called oxytocin. Oxytocin must be kept cold to be effective, so it isn’t a feasible option for communities without reliable electricity.

Last year, a clinical trial showed that a variation on oxytocin that doesn’t need refrigeration would likely save thousands of additional lives. However, regulatory hurdles and approval delays limit the availability of this option.

If we don’t understand the complexity of a health issue—and all of the barriers to access and to adoption of a solution—we can’t achieve our goal of health equity.

Imagine if we could overcome barriers and reach more under-served women around the world.

Innovation must be fast, and it must be iterative based on both success and failure. It must hold real people and communities at its center. It must be transferable to new places and new problems. And it must demonstrate a commitment to equity and the ability to move the needle on the world’s health challenges. Innovation is not just about novel ideals or the latest technologies. It is not confined to the art of the “game-changer.” And, it is not always defined by disruptive transformation.

PATH approaches innovation within the constraints of the communities we work in and the impact we want to make. We combine advanced ideas with proven approaches that increase access to health care in a way that embraces the unique needs of communities. We hope our work inspires others to be curious, unorthodox, and experimental, and ultimately improve what has been done before. Above all, innovation must help us respond faster than diseases spread to reduce the burden of disease and achieve health equity.

Milk cup prototypes.

Iteration is one of the keys to innovation. The Nifty Cup went through many stages of prototyping before reaching its final design. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern

At PATH, our push to innovate is borne from a 40-year legacy that converges the disciplines of human-centered design, research, commercialization, analytics, and measurement. Now amidst a time of unprecedented technological change, we continue to expand our capabilities by leveraging cutting edge approaches in digital health, data science, and informatics.

To achieve our goal of health equity, we continue to forge an intentional path of innovation that turns our constraints into our inspiration:

  • Designing for the journey of our end-users so we can better conceptualize the products, devices, and interventions that will help them achieve better health and health care.
  • Working shoulder-to-shoulder with counterparts in communities to identify better public health technologies, digital advances, medical devices and diagnostic solutions that work for the decision-makers, health providers and patients.
  • Making complex market forces work for us to shape the public and commercial success of products and interventions in the communities that need them the most.
  • Embracing research, measurement, evaluation, and learning cycles to ensure that we learn from successes and failures alike, and constantly adapt to meet our next challenge.
We continue to forge an intentional path of innovation that turns our constraints into our inspiration.

PATH initiatives like Living Labs embrace this view of innovation, inviting frontline immunization workers in sub-Saharan Africa to be co-creators of innovative solutions to complex, longstanding challenges to immunization coverage and equity. Deep engagement with health care workers provides a new source of creativity and shortens the cycles of development and prototyping. With this approach, we hope to try out hundreds of ideas in the time it would normally take to test one. We will rapidly see what ideas work, what ideas don’t work, and most importantly why—all with the end goal of identifying the best, most promising approaches and tools.

PATH's approach to innovation, viewed through this lens of equity and purpose, pushes us to:

Be better.
We can provide better, cheaper alternatives that can be adapted and reinvented so more populations can access a higher standard of healthcare.

Do more.
We can raise funding to incubate the next generation of effective innovation ideas.

Build capacity.
We can build the skills and capacity of our community partners working on issues of health and social welfare.

Chart a path to scale.
We can raise awareness and influence other organizations, donors, agencies and companies to take our ideas, interventions, and technologies and advance them so they are no longer novel but commonplace.

Achieve impact.
We can take our work to scale to achieve clear reductions in morbidity and mortality for all people.

Inspire others.
We cannot do this alone. We can model our principles and help other organizations innovate with intention, so we increase the aperture of the global health filter to sense and sort the most creative and impactful solutions.

Innovation is never a solitary act. It takes a global community of talented and thoughtful individuals to turn ideas into impact. Find out more about the work PATH is doing to bring health innovation to communities around the world.