James Militzer

A Feast for the Senses: Global health innovations in sight and sound – Bi-weekly Checkup, 7/5/13

For whatever reason, some of the coolest innovations to cross our radar screen in the past few weeks have involved vision and hearing – either enhancing them in doctors, or improving them in patients. Here are some sense-focused innovations that have caught my eye (sorry) because of their potential impact on patients at the base of the pyramid.

Google Glass-assisted MDs

For the uninitiated, Google Glass is essentially a pair of Internet-enabled eyeglasses. They give users hands-free web access, with images and text visible through their right eye, and audio transmitted via bone conductivity from a microphone next to their ear. Voice commands can launch web searches, take pictures, and record video – and also transmit this content to the Internet.

Rafael J. Grossmann, a U.S. surgeon and mHealth evangelist, has been a big proponent of the device and its medical potential. “I think that Glass represents the natural evolution of the human-computer interface,” he writes on his LinkedIn page. “The future potential of this device in health care is limited only by our imagination.”

Grossmann elaborates on his blog:

“I imagine being in the middle of a difficult surgical case and suddenly finding the unexpected. Just by a voice command, being able to call for help, having a colleague to ‘virtually join’ me and give advice; or encountering an unusual finding, and sending the image or recording of it to a pathologist or sub-specialty colleague, for their opinion on the gross appearance and … how to proceed. The potential for a better exchange of information, ideas, experiences and knowledge is only limited by our creativity.”

Putting his scalpel where his mouth is, Dr. Grossmann recently performed what he believes was the first Google Glass-assisted surgery. You can read more about it here. The functionality he’s experimenting with could be especially valuable at the BoP, where surgeons and other providers could draw on the expertise of their colleagues around the world in real time, without interrupting their treatment of patients.

A window to your health?

Now for a completely different take on “smart glasses” … EyeNetra, a company that grew out of collaborative research at the MIT Media Labs Camera Culture Group, is producing a small, portable device that allows anyone, anywhere to get an eye test for glasses, and to access a care provider through their mobile network.

By connecting an EyeNetra adapter onto a smartphone loaded with their software, users can follow simple instructions and quickly receive their eyeglass measurements on the phone – including the results of tests for nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism.

The company’s goal is to “transform the eye care industry” and “disrupt the $75 billion eyecare market by providing on-demand access to eye care from anywhere at anytime,” satisfying the 2.4 billion people who need vision correction around the world. But according to Ramesh Raskar of MIT Media Lab, the device’s medical potential extends far beyond eye care.

“The eye is the only place in the body where you have direct, non-invasive access to blood vessels and nerve fiber layers without cutting the skin,” he says. And since a number of illnesses are accompanied by vascular changes in the eye, the EyeNetra device could allow doctors to diagnose conditions ranging from hypertension and rheumatoid arthritis, to high cholesterol, neurological diseases or even infections. Changes in vascular structures can even help predict strokes and heart attacks. And since the EyeNetra devices are connected to smartphones, this diagnostic information can be instantly uploaded to the cloud and shared with physicians around the world. You can view Raskar’s recent TEDMED talk on the topic below.

Hearing aids for 1/10th the price

Up to 300 million people around the world need hearing aids, but only about 7 million people get them each year – mostly in the U.S. and Europe.

Why the discrepancy? It boils down to cost and personalization. A set of hearing aids costs around $4,000 on average, and it can require multiple visits to get the devices adjusted properly to an individual’s specific hearing.

Sound World Solutions addresses the second problem by making a hearing aid that’s adjustable through a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone. The device comes with an app that starts by giving the user a hearing test using a phone receiver-style earpiece. The app then sets the hearing aid to compensate for the user’s specific hearing loss. Users can also tweak these settings manually.

The company addresses the price issue by using mostly off-the-shelf Bluetooth technology for its device, rather than the far costlier proprietary technology used by most hearing aid manufacturers. The hearing aid’s price point of $300 makes it much more accessible to low-income users. And according to Frank Lin, an ear surgeon and professor of public health at Johns Hopkins University, its impact could extend beyond hearing. Lin’s research shows that hearing loss is more than just an inconvenience — it’s a serious public health problem, because it increases the likelihood of declining physical, emotional and mental health.

Have you come across any cool BoP-applicable health care innovations? If so, feel free to share them in the comments.

Here are some posts you may have missed in our past two weeks of global health coverage on NextBillion Health Care:

A Growing Network of Global Health Innovators: CHMI announces new partners and strategy to scale up cutting-edge health care solutions

No Fortune at the BoP?: Globe-trotting economist Paul Clyde on the promise (and limitations) of health care delivery models that serve the poor – Part 1

No Fortune at the BoP?: Economist Paul Clyde on the challenges of health care delivery in emerging markets – Part 2

Keeping Up with the Indians: Exploring emerging practices in a health care innovation powerhouse

In case you missed it … also this week on NextBillion

A Bank for Banks: Indonesia’s Bank Andara grows micro-businesses and turns a profit

Building Flexible, Inclusive and Dynamic Cities: Reflections from the 2013 New Cities Summit in São Paulo – WITH VIDEO

Measure for Measure: Eight tips to optimize your data collection and maximize your impact

Health Care
healthcare technology, public health