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We need more screening devices for specific diseases

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Prof B Ravi, Head, Biomedical Engineering and Technology incubation Centre (BETiC) at IIT Bombay, who has written a book on medical innovation, shares some learnings and experiences from his work that drives him towards medical innovation, in a chat with Raelene Kambli

You are very passionate about healthcare innovation. What according to you is the true essence of medical innovation?

Healthcare innovation focusses on alleviating the suffering of patients, which requires going out of comfort zones and collaborating with other stakeholders. Healthcare is rapidly growing in India and offers many opportunities for entrepreneurship (it recently became the largest employer in the US). The essence of medical device innovation, especially in the context of countries with limited resources, is to create products with the required functionality, quality and affordability. All these factors are attracting many youngsters to this field.

What kind of innovation does India requires today?

According to me, instead of focussing on treating patients, India needs to focus on diagnosing these diseases. We need more screening devices for specific diseases. These can a be POC devices which even ASHA workers can use it to screen patients in the rural areas. Therefore, I clearly feel that innovation in healthcare should be more about diagnostics. In future, the potential also lies in this area of healthcare. The whole world is moving towards wellness and well-being, therefore it is necessary to pre-empt the occurrence of diseases. In short, we have to move from a curative care model to more prevention care.

You say that novel innovations within the diagnostic space seem to have more potential in solving India’s healthcare issues. Can you explain why?

Prevention is better, cheaper and easier than cure. However, most Indians procrastinate diagnosis, making treatment prohibitively expensive later. Screening (to check for possible disease) enables early intervention, reducing the total healthcare costs. For large scale screening, the equipment need to be portable, easy-to-use and low-cost, and placed in primary health centers across the country.

Tell us your experiences while interacting with innovators? What is their perspective on India’s healthcare needs and ways to solve it?

Most of our innovators come from rural or semi-urban areas, and have first-hand knowledge of conditions in such places. They are highly committed to developing low-cost yet high-quality products suitable for local requirements, and persevere in the face of many challenges to bring the products to market. They are also side-stepping competition with branded products from foreign MNCs, by going to the root of the healthcare problems and coming up with novel solutions.

What lessons did you learn from them?

The youngsters are passing up traditional career paths and taking on big healthcare challenges facing the society, even though the medical device innovation eco-system is weak – high quality manufacturing vendors, medical device testing and venture funding are limited. Hence, an initial wave of market success stories is absolutely critical; this will ease the way for the next line of innovators.

There is a constant debate among healthcare experts on the subject of cost and quality. There are people who say that low cost may compromise quality. What is your opinion on the same?

The debate is valid only when low cost is achieved by comprising device materials, manufacturing and testing. It is possible to achieve high quality coupled with affordability (which implies high benefit to cost ratio). This requires root problem identification, collaborative innovation and frugal engineering. My book The Essence of Medical Device Innovation has some interesting insights on health innovations.

How do you think that these experience can encourage medical innovation in India?

Medical devices have to be developed to meet the needs of the local population. India has a highly diverse climate, culture and income levels; we cannot rely on imported devices, which are mostly designed for the western population. The local requirements coupled with emerging technologies such as smart sensors, data analytics and artificial intelligence give us an opportunity to rethink and reinvent medical devices.

Tell us about your book.

My book, The Essence of Medical Device Innovation, gives real-world stories of medtech innovation that aim to share the deep and practical insights of the BETIC team in medical device design and innovation. These stories also tell you about the thinking process of innovators and their passion towards the cause.

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