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Can ‘frugal’ technology address India’s healthcare needs?

Despite significant economic progress, India’s persistently poor performance when it comes to its health indicators has resulted in a push in recent years towards ‘frugal’ healthcare solutions in terms of products as well as processes. Issues of affordability in private healthcare, the poor quality of public alternatives, accessibility, and a dearth of trained professionals continue to afflict the Indian healthcare system. A concerted policy effort to encourage ‘frugal’ innovations in healthcare that focus on affordability and functionality, without compromising on quality, could potentially address many of India’s healthcare problems, including those that the country is likely to face in the future. Furthermore, rising healthcare costs in the advanced economies in the face of anemic economic growth and stretched government finances, indicate that a number of these innovations could also be used to address healthcare needs in advanced economies like the US, EU and Japan.

Health care scenario in India

India currently has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world (39 per 1000 live births)1, while around 44,000 maternal deaths are linked to childbirth in India as of 2011-13 according to the Millennium Development Goals Report 20152. India will also increasingly have to contend with a significant jump in lifestyle and non-communicable diseases in the years ahead. According to a WHO study3, non-communicable diseases and injuries are likely to account for 76% of India’s disease burden by 2030. This together with a projected increase in life expectancy will have implications for the costs of managing and treating lifestyle related disorders. Our primary focus in this blog piece is to raise questions as to how existing innovative products and processes can effectively bring down the cost of healthcare provision.

Conceptualising ‘frugal’ innovation in healthcare

‘Frugal’ innovations in healthcare aim to provide high quality care at lowest possible costs. In the case of a product it may require compromising on the sophistication in design and look, in favour of ensuring ease of use. In the case of process innovations, it may involve improvising on procedures like heart surgeries and eye surgeries to provide high quality healthcare on a mass scale (e.g. Use of ICT technologies, sharing for fixed costs with other hospitals etc.4)

Commonly cited examples of ‘frugal’ innovations include:

Company Frugal Innovation Applications Product/Process
GE Healthcare Infant and Maternal care Product
Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics and Infant care Product
Philips Healthcare Diagnostics – cardiology and radiology Product
Biosense Diabetic care Product
Phoenix Medicals Infant and Maternal Care Product
UE Lifesciences Breast Cancer Diagnosis Product
ArvindEyecare Eyecare Process
Narayan Hrudayalaya Cardiac Surgery Process

Challenges for India’s ‘frugal’ innovation ecosystem

The effectiveness of ‘frugal’ products in addressing on-field needs and in terms of lowering the cost of healthcare is a topic that needs to be investigated further. In the Indian context, it would also require examining how these products function in disparate weather conditions, and often with poor supporting infrastructure. One would need to look at whether ‘frugal’ products that make their way into the market have been designed in a way that would allow low-skilled practitioners to operate them. At the same time, it should be ensured that there is compliance with the regulatory standards and procedures to ensure that quality is not compromised. Given the huge potential for disruption in the healthcare space, one would need to design policies that encourage more startups that will focus on developing low-cost, high-tech healthcare solutions.

1ORG India (2016). SRS Bulletin. Sample Registration System, Volume 50 No.1, July. Office of the Registrar General, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi.
2United Nations (2015). The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015. United Nations Publications, New York
3Prabhakaran D, Ajay VS.(2011) Noncommunicable diseases in India: A perspective. World Bank 2011.[In Press] (Data from WHO Global InfoBase)
4Davidson, L. (2015). Do Frugal Innovations Lead to Frugal Outcomes? A Case Study of Healthcare in India.Wharton Research Scholars Journal.Paper 127.
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