6 technologies that will disrupt health care in developing markets

The MinION, a portable genetic sequencer. Photo by: Oxford Nanopore Technologies

Rapidly evolving technology has dramatically changed our everyday lives — and its potential to improve health care access and services is remarkable.

The development community has only begun to include these shifts into programming. Future Crunch, an Australia-based consultancy, is working with organizations across the country, including aid groups, to help them understand, plan for and leverage disruptive innovations. Science and technology experts Angus Hervey, Tane Hunter and Tanushree Rao spoke to Devex about which technologies can help reshape health markets to improve service delivery and outcomes in developing countries.

1. Artificial intelligence.

“Artificial intelligence will be a game changer for health markets,” Hunter predicts, telling Devex machine learning technology is set to enable faster and more reliable diagnosis.

Google’s DeepMind and IBM’s Watson are two examples of artificial intelligence initiatives that could stir the revolution. The two organizations use machine learning technology to analyze big data and develop programs that can solve any complex problem without needing to be taught how. In the case of health, that could mean picking apart genetic data to determine possible links between genes and diseases.

“It’s great for cancer as this is an incredibly complex disease,” Hunter said. “Allowing these programs to mine the data enables us to figure out the cause of a particular type of cancer. It then reveals ways we can use targeted therapies to fight the disease.”

The technology further enables changes in genetic data to be tracked over time, allowing for better monitoring a patient’s response to therapies. “As soon as we notice something is changing and people are not responding to therapies, we can switch gears, change therapies and improve patient outcomes,” Hunter said.

Within two years, Hunter predicts DeepMind and Watson will be released on a mass scale, impacting the health market in developing countries. “They first need to nail down the protocols and the right way to do things before it is unleashed widely,” he said.

The availability of this technology could impact the way the development sector plans for and delivers health programs, particularly those aimed at eradicating diseases.

2. DNA sequencing in your pocket.

DNA sequencing could offer a better understanding of the causes of diseases and illnesses — and possibly, tailored and targeted health solutions. Thanks to technology, such analysis is now literally pocket-sized.

“The MinION is a USB-sized genetic sequencer,” Hunter explained. “It’s easy, cheap and portable. We will soon see this technology quickly spreading to many places in the world where it is currently too expensive and the machines are too large to really put it out at scale. These technologies will really start to scale up, get cheap and become easier to use.”

For the development community, this technology would enable DNA sequencing to be a common tool in understanding and monitoring health. It has the potential to be part of every aid worker’s field kit as well as medical supplies delivered to communities for improved health education and self-monitoring.

3. 3-D printing.

3-D printers are continuing to improve, become cheaper and more portable. They have the potential to revolutionize patient experiences in developing countries.

“A refugee in Syria had lost his leg and was able to use a 3-D printer to create a prosthetic leg for himself,” Rao told Devex, citing a real example. “3-D printers are making something that would usually only be available to the elite in health care widely available.”

Sharing designs that consumers can download and print will change the way health care markets deliver goods and services to remote and developing communities. Prosthetics, health care equipment and other devices can be delivered faster, more widely and at a lower cost through the internet.

Children may be among those who benefit most. “For kids you can quickly print a new arm or leg as they need it,” Hunter said. “You can make them pretty cool with Iron Man-type colors so it is not only functional but aesthetic and fun.”

4. CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing.

“If the big breakthrough of the last decade was genetic sequencing, the big break for this decade is CRISPR/Cas9, the ability to copy and paste our own DNA,” Hervey explained to Devex. “It’s a game changer — we now have the ability to stop diseases in its tracks at the genetic level.”

Around 4,000 diseases in humans are determined by a single genetic defect. CRISPR/Cas9 means these genes could theoretically be stripped out preventing the debilitating diseases from occurring.

This experimental technology is currently only allowed in a small number of countries, but Hervey predicts we will soon see its use widely expanded. “Over the next decade we will see the use of CRISPR enabled therapies not just in the lab but in hospitals and health markets,” he said.

Already, this technology has been used to prevent AIDS, cure blindness and cancer. And its cost means aid programs could be calling on the health care market to deliver these solutions to developing countries.

5. Nanotechnology.

“A conversation about the future has to include nanotechnology,” Hunter said.

Nanotechnology deals with the engineering of functional systems at the molecular scale. In health care, nanotechnology could enable services to be delivered at the atomic level. Nanobots, or microscopic robots, have the potential to identify and respond to diseases early.

“Nanobots within the bloodstream can attach onto different proteins and molecules and relay information back about a patient’s health,” Hunter said. “Experiments are further gearing nanobots up to do microsurgery, such as scouring plaque out of arteries and delivering medicine in precise ways.”

For developing countries where access to health care is problematic, this technology means that diagnostics and health delivery could occur remotely. It would boost the health care system’s speed and agility, likely at a cheaper cost. And it could reduce the number and cost of health care programs the development community needs to provide.

Verily, a health technology research arm of Google, is one organization which aims to improve health care access to nanotechnology.

“This technology is in the development stage but projects such as Google’s Verily are really trying to make this happen and I really believe it will change how we treat disease,” Hunter told Devex.

6. Drones.

Drones are increasingly being look to in order to supply medicine and medical supplies to remote areas, conflict zones or areas hit by natural disaster. The UPS Foundation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, for example, have partnered with drone company Zipline to deliver medical services in Rwanda.

“In Rwanda and other developing communities, one of the biggest issues is women dying from postpartum hemorrhaging after giving birth,” Hunter said, offering one example. “Drones delivering blood and other medical supplies to remote communities have the potential to dramatically reduce maternal and other deaths.”

Following a natural disaster, drones can be used to quickly deliver medicine on the ground. And their size and portability means they can also deliver in conflict zones. “Drones are hard to take down, Hunter said. “They are small, fly low and are often undetected on radars.”

But they are not just a delivery tool used as part of health care response; drones can also be important in preventive health care measures.

“Recently birth control was delivered to remote areas of Ghana by drone,” Rao said. “Obviously this needs to be accompanied by things such as sex education but it’s providing access to health care that otherwise would not have been available. This is the democratization of technology.”

Making Markets Work is an online conversation to explore what’s being done to make global health care markets accessible to people at the base of the pyramid. Over 10 weeks, we will amplify the discussion around effective health financing, analyze key challenges blocking universal market access in the health care supply chain, and explore the key strategies to make markets more effective. Join us as we look at this important issue, and share your thoughts by tagging #MakingMarketsWork and @Devex.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.

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