The next big thing in global health innovation? A little less innovation, a little more implementation

A post like this should come with the qualification that I am no luddite when it comes to technology and innovation in global health. Quite the opposite actually. I have dedicated my entire career to championing ideas. Whether that was working in academic research evaluating new ways of helping people with chronic diseases live well or researching the technology and innovation pipeline to help healthcare organizations make decisions on what technologies and innovations to invest in; I have been and will continue to be a health technology and innovation advocate (and when I talk about innovation, I’m not just talking about clinical and biological technology or information and communication technology but more broadly about new programs, interventions, etc).

Five years ago I embarked on a new career path in global health which transformed the way I now think of innovation. One of my first projects was to help a local partner organization implement a logistics management information system to manage their post-rape care medication inventory. Since then, I have helped our partners through the process of implementing other technologies and in that short time, I learned the many pain points of implementing innovations.

When you have spent a good part of your career as I did working in controlled research environments where the protocol is often laid out months ahead of time with little room for deviance and with study participants who are often given incentives to participate, working on the last mile problem required a skill set refresh and a change in the way I viewed the innovation pathway. Whether it is learning how to integrate an innovation into a user’s workflow; getting users to trust you enough to tell you when something is just not working for them; finding out how to get innovations to stick; making mistakes and reiterating; using real-time data to enable feedback loops; understanding (and dealing with) organizational politics and leadership; mapping out relationships, etc. – graduate training in public health does very little to prepare you for the trial by error approach required for these undertakings. Researching and evaluating is very different from implementing. So many of us in this field spend much of our time working on research studies and programs based on the models and theories we’ve learned in school that we very rarely think closely about whether or not the studies or programs we work on are scalable, sustainable, or even ethical.

I recently attended a panel at Stanford consisting primarily of philanthropic organizations discussing how those of us working in the social sector and those of us supporting the work need to rethink innovation in terms of scale. One of the things that struck me during the discussion was that when it came to what metrics we use to define success we’re often talking about success on a small scale.  And too often they’re developed with the mindset of pleasing the donor or funder. When we think success metrics, we usually talk about some quantitative statistic that goes something like this: X% reduced morbidity or mortality in our sample size of N. At the end of the study or funding period, we leave the site, taking with us our intervention. We then go on to write a paper about it, submit it crossing our fingers it gets accepted in a high impact journal, we publish it, we present our ideas at conferences. We then call it a success and move onto our next grant.

While this is often the gold standard of success for academics and should still remain an important part of the innovation pathway, there are parts of this road to innovation success that are concerning, especially in the low-resource settings we work in. Firstly, is it ethical to put in an innovation into a site and then remove the intervention once the study period is over if we know it has helped them? Would the site be even able to afford the innovation once it passes the research phase? Secondly, is it enough to define the success of an innovation by saying the intervention did what we wanted it to do? After all, I’m pretty sure a company like Facebook didn’t call themselves a success after running a small study of 250 users that found that everyone liked the product and it changed their lives. They are successful because they have 1.94 billion daily active users worldwide (scale) and have been around for 14 years (sustainability) and they have changed the way we connect with others.

Dear global health colleagues, we have an enormous task at hand. One that requires us to roll up our sleeves and stop thinking small and start thinking big. Let’s end this epidemic of health technology pilotitis and start innovating in the implementation space. Let’s start thinking about ways of innovating outside of the academic space and in real-world settings with real-world obstacles. Implementing innovations demands collaboration so let’s also make sure that we influence those around us. We need to change the conversation on impact and start asking our colleagues and the organizations that support our work to start thinking about the long game. From there we need to make it easier to decide which technologies and innovations to adopt. Let’s also not forget about training our next generation of public health professionals to focus on creating true impact by teaching effective implementation in schools.

Implementation work is incredibly unsexy and a risky investment but needs to be the next big thing in global health as its value proposition is substantial. It is of notable importance when the future of funding for global health is becoming more uncertain. We need now more than ever to deliver long-lasting solutions, not just short-term fixes.

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A study looking at the proportion of children’s health grants funded by the US National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 97% of grants were for developing new technologies and only 3% for improving delivery and use of existing technologies. Additionally, they found that new technologies would only reduce child mortality by 22% compared to 63% if existing technologies were fully utilized.

Although this study looked only at children’s health grants, the implementation gap can be found universally throughout global health. Learn more about how to bridge the “3/97” gap:

 

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2 thoughts on “The next big thing in global health innovation? A little less innovation, a little more implementation

  1. Thank you, Jean Armas, for this blog on such an essential topic as the current tension between innovation and implementation! I share the frustration with many IH colleagues who work on developing low-cost community and home-based strategies that are effective, innovative, and that beg to scale-up. Much of this work is a result of years of painstaking grass-roots collaboration with communities and local health and government systems. But these efforts are being left behind in the dust in favor of the search for shiny new technological innovations that are ever further out of reach of mothers, children, and families who have need for simple and economically viable solutions. I fear we are losing years to the glittery dream of technological fixes, harking back to the silver bullets of “selective primary health care” that distracted from the basic concepts of Alma Ata: equity, community involvement, and basic integrated services close to the people.

    1. Thank you so much, Laura. Your thoughts very much echo my own frustrations as well. I attended a conference a few years ago that said everything we already know about how to save (children’s) lives already exists. While I don’t entirely agree with the statement as there are still a few missing innovations, the sentiment was there. I completely agree with what you said about Alma Ata. It may not be the attractive silver bullet we’re looking for, but it’s the right thing to do.

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