Health Care

Intel researchers bring frugal innovation to Indian healthcare

clinicKumar Ranganathan, leader of Intel India’s biosignaling lab, instructed his subordinates to embrace frugal innovation in order to create a device that could increase rural access to cardiac and blood-glucose monitoring. That was four years ago, and the end product is a device is called LifePhonePlus.

Unlike urban middle class Indians, who can access a hospital or clinic on short notice, 70% of the 1.2 billion people living in rural India may not be able to access a clinic for several days at a stretch, and when they finally do, the expense incurred is often more than an entire family earns in one week.  With LifePhonePlus, patients can keep track of their blood-glucose levels, undergo electrocardiography testing (ECG) and obtain a specialist’s advice without leaving town.

Ranganathan says doctors at various clinics and hospitals currently provide diagnoses to patients using the device, which first hit the market in 2013. In 2014 LifePhonePlus received the South Asia E-Health Summit Award for mobile health innovation.

Ranganathan says LifePhonePlus has been successful because it was developed specifically for Indian patients by Indian innovators who understand the ground realities and have first hand knowledge of the country’s healthcare problems, and was done so by resorting to frugal innovation- in other words, it was developed and manufactured in the most basic and least expensive manner possible.

Frugal innovation has become increasingly popular in developing markets, as it is a means to reach low income consumers. Engineers who specialize in this method of product development usually remove all the unnecessary bells and whistles, stripping the product down to bare bones while maintaining functionality and reliability, and ensuring that the product is compatible with local business practices and infrastructure.

Author of Jugaad Innovation, Jaideep Prabhu, commented on the frugal innovation movement, saying, “Designers in developed countries can focus too much on technology and too little on customer use context, but the end result will usually be a product that cannot take off in the developing world.”

Ranganathan echoed Prabhu’s sentiment, saying, “These products are filled with bells and whistles, for example, the next-gen communication technology is focused on 5G, but 80% of the world’s population, including India, is still on a 2G connection.”

Mansukhlal Raghavjibhai Prajapati with the Mitti Cool Fridge

Mansukhlal Raghavjibhai Prajapati with the Mitti Cool Fridge

It appears that Indian manufacturers and inventors are taking to frugal innovation like ducks to water. Inventor, Mansukhlal Raghavjibhai Prajapati, developed the $50 Mitti Cool Fridge, a refrigerator made of clay, which relies on the thermal qualities of a clay mixture, and zero electricity, to keep food items cool. Even the big boys are getting in on the action with Tata Motors producing its $1,600 Nano.

In addition to product development, some service providers are customizing rate plans to suit Indian consumption habits. For example, Indian telecos offer pre-paid mobile plans that let customers pay for service only when they can afford it. Such offerings have been a huge success as they ensure cellular service for nearly 900 million Indians, who otherwise would not have access to mobile services.

India’s ubiquitous access to mobile services is one factor making the LifePhonePlus innovation a reality. The device relies on WiFi or Bluetooth to transfer the health data collected from a patient to the patient’s phone before it is forwarded to a healthcare provider. A doctor then sends a message containing the required medical advice. Afterward, both patients and doctors can view, download and print health reports at any time. Online instructional videos teach patients how to operate the device.

Government data indicates one in 25 Indians succumb to heart failure due to coronary disease, rheumatic heart disease, hypertension, diabetes or obesity. Since doctors are already in short supply, increasing their presence in rural areas isn’t always feasible, and one way to address this shortage is to increase patient awareness of such conditions.

Commenting on development challenges, Ranganathan said, “One of our biggest challenges is that Intel has never made a geo-specific product and this was a new move. 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 service must be available everywhere, especially in remote areas, which is a difficult thing to solve from a business perspective.”

Intel India says it is working on other India centric wireless devices as well, including a product to help address the problem of women’s safety.

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Tracy Venkatesh

Tracy Venkatesh

Tracy Venkatesh has spent twenty years working and interacting with a socioeconomically diverse population in both the private and public sectors, and has held positions in multiple verticals including content development, healthcare, customer relations management, defense and law enforcement.

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