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Tarun Khanna, left, with Nathan Sigworth

This is the first article in a series highlighting SAI’s ongoing research projects that were featured at SAI’s Annual Symposium ‘South Asia: Local Solutions with Global Impact‘ in April.

By Ghazal Gulati, Ed. M Candidate, Harvard Graduate School of Education, @GhazalGulati

The South Asia Institute’s Annual Symposium, ‘South Asia: Local Solutions with Global Impact’ began on April 16 with an engaging panel showcasing research undertaken through SAI’s Mobile Technology research project.

The panel showcased three real-world case studies of unique applications of mobile technology in the field of healthcare, and discussed the next steps for the multi-year project. The project aims to explore the expansion of the use of mobile technology to provide services to a vast population, and find linkages and opportunities for transferability of interventions across various services.

Sachit Balsari, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights; Cornell Weill Medical Center, served as facilitator, and started the discussion by indicating how the global discussion around healthcare has finally started leaving the domain of traditional hospitals and is now focused on the promotion of unique innovations to improve the overall health of the human population. He explained the framework developed by SAI to facilitate the discussion, in the form of three lenses: the technology itself, the regulations (or lack thereof) governing the use of the technology, and the user experience of the technology in question.

The first case study was by Nathan Sigworth, Director, PharmaSecure, who presented his work at PharmaSecure that focuses on validation of medicines purchased through unique serialization. The company has serialized 1.5 billion packages and has contributed to curbing the scourge of counterfeit drugs. Mr. Sigworth was quick to point out the existence of a vast pharmaceutical industry in India that has limited availability of data on drug usage.

Jill Shah speaks about the work of Vera Solutions

With the hope of improving this current state of affairs, PharmaSecure has partnered with public sector organizations to reimburse users in exchange for the provision of data. This data on patient usage of drugs presents an opportunity for public health professionals in India. Mr. Sigworth noted the great potential for private entrepreneurs to play a bigger role if the government were to take over the financial responsibilities.

Mr. Sigworth’s experience in India over the past ten years also revealed several challenges to implementing these new technologies. Regulations can play a big role to support, but also to conversely undermine great ideas. Securing funding is also a major concern for smaller organizations trying to implement unique solutions at scale. There is a need for mentors in the field as well as individuals who are committed to dedicating their careers to making these innovative solutions work at scale.

The second presentation by Jill Shah, Associate Consultant, Vera Solutions focused on using technology to bridge operational gaps and introduce strong monitoring mechanisms for non-profit organisations. With the use of cloud based database management systems and technology, organizations such as Vera Solutions are able to leverage technology to efficiently implement and monitor programs. There is a need to design systems that focus on the experience of the users. There is also a need for regular training and capacity building to improve the usage by program staff.

The last case study of the session was presented by Tarun Khanna, Director of the South Asia Institute & Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor, Harvard Business School. Professor Khanna’s presentation, titled “A Tale of Two Cities” began by comparing the health infrastructure between Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Kumbh Mela, a mega temporary city in Allahabad, India that is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. Professor Khanna posed the challenge of designing an effective healthcare system that could handle the massive patient load and multiple chronic health issues.

Khanna then showcased the work of Jana Care, an organization that focuses on using mobile technology for next generation diagnostics and evidence-based lifestyle coaching programs. Through the use of the ‘Aina’ device, a mobile diagnostic platform, patients can receive instant patient parameters. These can help patients and doctors both through quick diagnosis times and by reducing patient cycle times at hospitals.

Based on the discussions during the panel, it was clear that these new solutions present opportunities that are tremendous. However, they require committed champions, like the speakers in this session, to fully utilize the true potential of mobile technology in healthcare.

The research project was awarded Harvard’s President’s Innovation Fund for International Experiences (PIFIE), which will fund a 2015 summer course for Harvard students to spend time in India to understand the use of mobile technology by interacting and gathering data from local producers, regulators, investors, and end users of the technology.


Read more about SAI’s research projects.