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5 Promising Innovation Trends to Empower Frontline Health Workers

Over the past month, we reviewed 265 submissions to Solve’s Frontlines of Health Challenge, seeking solutions that enable communities to invest in frontline health workers and services to improve their access to effective and affordable care.

These solutions came from all over the world and use a wide range of innovative technologies. After analyzing our submissions, we noticed five promising trends in healthcare innovation.

Read on to learn about these trends, and get to know some of our finalist solutions. Support your favorites by voting for them, and tune in on September 23 to hear them pitched at Solve Challenge Finals.

1) What Showed Up Everywhere: Mobile Apps

Need to provide care delivery, notify urgent care responders, coordinate patient follow-ups, or disseminate healthcare information? There’s an app for that. In fact, 20 percent of this year’s solutions use a mobile app. In emerging economies, the average percentage of smartphone owners increased from 21 percent in 2013 to 37 percent in 2015. And as mobile phones rapidly become ubiquitous around the world, this seems like a clear way to expand healthcare access.

However, simply having healthcare apps on your phone isn’t enough. Oftentimes, our phones are crammed with apps that we don’t use. The key is getting someone to use the app. That’s why the best app-based solutions take a human-centered approach and account for the ways people actually behave. Solutions do this by requiring minimal action from the user to be effective, or by making the app’s use more urgent or time-critical.

2) What Was Cutting-Edge: AI and Machine Learning

We know there are many frontline health workers out there who don’t have the luxury of accessing professional training. How do we upskill these people in a rapid, scalable, and cost-effective way? Two letters: AI.

23 percent of solutions use artificial intelligence and machine learning to better equip frontline health workers with the skills needed to provide care. Some solutions provide decision support to help workers diagnose or treat illness. Others offer training tools that set up realistic scenarios to help workers prepare and practice appropriate responses.

The significant amount of AI-based solutions wasn’t a complete surprise. We anticipated that the Artificial Intelligence for the Betterment of Humanity Prize, provided by the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, would encourage many innovators to apply. Furthermore, as AI and machine learning technologies advance, they are increasingly applied to a wide range of industries. Our Frontlines of Health solutions are no exception.

3) What Was Underrepresented: Supply Chain Solutions

Around the world, lack of medical supplies and limited access to essential medicines is a huge issue. In fact, in low-income countries, the World Health Organization found that only 37.7 percent of patients could get much-needed generic medicines from public sector facilities. Given this huge gap, we expected to see more solutions addressing this problem.

Because this isn’t a self-contained issue, viable solutions would need to address financing, partnerships with entities up and down the supply chain, and data about supply and demand. These complexities make this problem a tough nut to crack.

A few solutions did focus on supply chains. For example, one solution uses AI and machine learning to deliver supplies and medicines to areas in need without a central distributor. But overall, only 6 percent of solutions address supply chain needs. We’d love to see more.

4) What Was Encouraging: Sub-Saharan African Representation and a Focus on Women

There’s a massive need for healthcare service in Sub-Saharan Africa, yet the region has only 1 percent of global health expenditure and only 3 percent of the global health workforce. We were thrilled to see that 30 percent of our Frontlines of Health solutions came from innovators headquartered in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Women-focused solutions were another encouraging trend. We know that investments in women’s health results in returns for their families and communities, so we were very excited to see that 16 percent of solutions focus specifically on women. These solutions address health issues that specifically or disproportionately affect women: breast cancer, women's access to contraceptive care, menstrual health, maternal and child health, and inclusion of women in the health workforce, to name a few.

5) What Was Pleasantly Unexpected: Reinterpretation of “Frontline Health Workers”

When we launched the Frontlines of Health Challenge, we sought solutions that would recruit and train frontline health workers in an effort to close the global healthcare access gap. As we reviewed our 265 solutions, we saw many that focused on upskilling or supporting those who are already health workers—or those en route to becoming health workers.

However, we also saw solutions that reinterpreted the definition of a “frontline health worker,” or creatively identified promising populations who could provide care to their communities. Some aim to reintroduce dormant healthcare providers into the caregiving community—for example, recertifying refugees as providers, or asking retired doctors to volunteer hours. Others aim to introduce new non-traditional care providers. Think of community volunteers without a health background, or individuals who provide peer-to-peer support.

Overall, these inspiring solutions hold immense promise for expanding global access to healthcare. If these trends pique your interest, get to know and support our Frontlines of Health Finalists. Read through their solutions and vote for the most compelling innovations. Voting closes Friday, September 21 at 5:00pm.

Our health community intern Wendy Wang contributed to the data analysis and research for this article.


Image: Courtesy of Pixabay

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