Access is Everything

Frugal Innovation Brings Healthcare to Rural India

Pearly Tan Writer

A team of Intel researchers in India is finding ways to tackle social needs using affordable technologies.

For India’s emerging urban middle class, heart palpitations usually mean a quick trip to a nearby hospital. But for the 70 percent of the 1.2 billion Indians living in rural areas, going to the doctor’s office can take days — and often costs more than a family earns in a week.

Four years ago, Kumar Ranganathan, who leads the biosignaling lab at Intel India, challenged his team to come up with technology to overcome this obstacle.

The result is a palm-sized device called LifePhonePlus.

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The device allows people to take an ECG, monitor their blood-glucose levels and seek a specialist’s advice without traveling anywhere.

The LifePhonePlus first became available in 2013. Ranganathan said doctors at several clinics and hospitals currently offer diagnoses to people who use it.

Last year the device won the South Asia E-Health Summit Award for mobile health innovation. Ranganathan attributes the device’s initial success to the fact that it was developed for people in India by people in India, with an explicit goal to keep costs as low as possible.

This approach, known as frugal innovation, is an increasingly popular way to manufacture and market products for people in the developing world.

In order to meet people’s needs while still being affordable, frugal innovation encourages engineers to strip away all unnecessary features from a product while ensuring it performs its core mission. Other requirements are that a product must work with existing infrastructure and rely on a business model that makes sense for the people it is targeted to.

“Designers in developed countries can focus too much on technology and too little on customer use context,” said Jaideep Prabhu, author of “Jugaad Innovation,” a book on the frugal innovation movement.

“The end result will usually be a product that cannot take off in the developing world.”

Ranganathan says he sees it all the time with western products that go on sale in India.

“These products are filled with bells and whistles,” he said.

“For example, the next-gen communication technology is focused on 5G, but 80 percent of the world’s population, including India, is still on a 2G connection.”

Frugal innovation is taking off in India. Tata Motors developed a car that costs $1,600. One inventor developed a $50 clay refrigerator that uses the thermal characteristics of a clay mixture — and no external power — to keep food cool.

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Indian telecommunications companies have developed mobile plans that allow customers to pay only when they can afford to, an approach that has allowed some 900 million Indians to use cell phones. Widespread mobile access is one of the things that makes the LifePhonePlus possible.

According to government data, one in 25 Indians die from heart failure due to coronary heart disease, hypertension, obesity, diabetes and rheumatic heart disease.

Rather than increasing the number of doctors in rural areas, one way to cope with this problem is to help people become more aware of their health conditions.

The LifePhonePlus uses Bluetooth or WiFi wireless technologies to send the health information it collects to the user’s phone and then on to a doctor. The doctor then sends back advice, which might range from cutting down on sweets to go to a hospital as soon as possible.

Videos online show patients where to place the device against their body to take an ECG and perform other functions. Both users and doctors can also view, download and print health reports anytime afterwards.

Ranganathan said several hospitals are treating patients using the device.

“One of our biggest challenges is that Intel has never made a geo-specific product and this was a new move,” he said.

“We had to conduct many pilot tests with hospitals and find a suitable manufacturer with a good distribution network to reach our target audience.”

The LifePhonePlus is just one of the wireless products Intel India is working on that are designed for Indians and with the existing technological infrastructure in mind.

Another team is looking at creating something to address the issue of women’s safety in India.

“The service must be available everywhere, especially in remote areas,” Ranganathan said. “It’s a difficult thing to solve from a business perspective.”

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