• From left to right, Arjun Nair, Murali Govindaswamy and Ashish Kothari, 2009-2010 fellows at the Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship

    Photo: Patrick Gillooly

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Medical entrepreneurship, from the bottom up

MIT students aim to bring affordable health care to India’s masses.


A few years ago, Ashish Kothari thought he had found his life’s calling as a doctor. Raised and educated in Mumbai, the son of a doctor himself, Kothari graduated from medical school, became head resident at an Indian hospital and held valuable internships in Singapore and New York. Back in Mumbai, he established a private practice and helped it grow to five doctors and 30 staff members in three years.

Then in 2009, Kothari, an orthopedic surgeon, left his practice to study at MIT. Not because he was tired of helping people, but because Kothari believed he could help more people as a medical entrepreneur working to lower the cost of care in India.

“The difference between developed and developing economies is the way people are treated at every level of society,” says Kothari, who is pursuing degrees at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. “Not just at the top, but how people are treated at the middle and at the bottom, and I firmly believe a basic level of medical care is something everyone deserves.”

As a result, Kothari is currently at Sloan formulating a two-part plan for making inexpensive medical tools and building low-cost clinics. In 2009-2010, Kothari is one of 16 fellows at MIT’s Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship, which promotes “bottom-up” global development through technology. Two other Legatum fellows are trying to connect technology and medicine in India: Arjun Nair, who wants to create electronic medical records for India’s poor, and Murali Govindaswamy, who aims to increase forms of data-sharing over rural Internet networks.

“There is a large population in India that could benefit from medical innovations,” says Iqbal Z. Quadir, the founder and director of the Legatum Center at MIT. “That’s why it’s important for all three of them to establish a sustainable presence there.”

When a knee costs an arm and a leg

These projects aim to affect a society where medical care reflects class divisions. At the high end, India has world-class doctors, clinics and technologies; the country has seen a growth in “medical tourism” among patients who, for instance, travel to Bangalore, where a relatively pain-free type of heart bypass surgery was pioneered. Yet with a population over one billion, hundreds of millions of Indians could use better, more affordable care.

At MIT, Kothari, Nair and Govindaswamy are all rethinking the relationship between technology and medicine. In the United States, medical technology has often been associated with expensive new treatments. But as the Legatum Center fellows see it, technology should lower health expenses for the masses by refining existing treatments. “There’s this huge void between the high-quality medical care available in the top 5 or 10 percent, and what is available at a price most people can pay,” Kothari says.

Consider Kothari’s surgical expertise, joint replacement. In India, an artificial knee costs $1,000 to $1,500. “I think it’s possible to get that down to $500 to $750,” Kothari says, through local manufacturing (currently more than 90 percent of India’s implant parts are imported) and better engineering management. Kothari has recruited a chief engineer for his prospective company and would like to make many types of devices — including diagnostic tools and sterilizing machines — while starting modestly and “growing as the demand grows.”

Indeed, the consulting firm Technopak Healthcare has projected that medical-sector spending in India will rise from $40 billion in 2008 to $323 billion in 2023 (without adjusting for inflation), thanks partly to India’s emerging middle classes. Inexpensive device-making, Kothari thinks, naturally helps affordable treatment and low-cost clinics become realistic.

Records for the poor

Nair’s project aims even lower on the socioeconomic scale: He would like to help people who cannot read the label on their medicine. “The poorest of the poor are mostly uneducated, illiterate, don’t have access to drugs and live in the rural areas,” says Nair. “It’s very hard for them to get educated about fundamental problems like tuberculosis or more chronic problems like diabetes.”

The first step, Nair thinks, is to create electronic medical records for them: “You need to keep track of how a patient progresses over time. But that’s an enormous task in India because there’s no infrastructure for it.” Thus Nair wants to found a business to build a record-keeping infrastructure for rural health-care providers, ideally in his native state of Kerala, in southern India.

Govindaswamy, for his part, would like to develop data applications, to be used on the mobile devices sold by Nokia in India, that would let rural residents send and receive medical data. “If you break down the information barrier using mobile phones, that can help in areas like health,” says Govindaswamy.

Being at MIT also helps the Legatum Center fellows connect with local entrepreneurs. One model for Nair’s project is suggested by Innovators in Health, a Cambridge-based firm that developed a “smart pillbox,” a mobile device that reminds tuberculosis patients to take their drugs. “It’s extremely hard to monitor what’s going on in the field,” says Innovators in Health co-founder Manish Bhardwaj, PhD ’09, whose company has roots in MIT’s International Development Initiative. Of Nair’s idea, he says, “Electronic medical records are the kind of thing that can help a good program to reduce costs.”

Think global, start local

Innovators in Health currently participates in projects in Delhi and the Bihar region. That kind of scale, Nair observes, is ideal. “If you start at the higher level, it’s an enormously capital-intensive project, and it’s not going to happen,” says Nair bluntly. “So it has to be localized; then you can build up.”

Quadir, who founded Bangladesh’s largest telephone company, Grameenphone, supports that philosophy. “That’s the nature of bottom-up development: it builds on small, initial success,” says Quadir. “Then other people can invest, and a project can become bigger. That’s why the Legatum Center encourages projects that can become commercially viable. Through local innovation, if you deliver more efficiently, the opportunities are enormous.”

Of course, the Legatum Center fellows face high hurdles before their ideas become viable enterprises. Bhardwaj, for instance, recommends that health startups become partners with nongovernmental aid organizations in India — which financial backers almost always require.

“A lot of people have narratives of technological transformation,” says Bhardwaj. “But investors are looking for reliable partners on the ground. You have to manage challenges from infrastructure to finding the right way of hiring and training workers. If an organization has everything else functioning, then it’s primed and ready for computerization.”

Whatever obstacles they face, these Legatum Center fellows are all making the same trip from India to MIT and back, in order to help others. “Being a doctor is wonderful, but I wanted to try something different,” concludes Kothari. “My father’s practice always treated people independent of socioeconomic concerns. You only need to be sick for two days to realize how much it affects you, so think about people who are unwell all the time. I’d like to do something for them.”


Topics: Health, In the world, India, Legatum Center, Medicine, Health sciences and technology

Comments

Bottoms-up is what we need in the U.S. as well. The patient is often still thought of as the bottom, unlike so many other trades. In many places, medicine still has to catch up on the customer-service axis, a second reason for the medical tourism business. I was reminded of Temple Grandin, and her ground-breaking discussion of the autistic spectrum, from the patient's point of view. Selling a thousand seats, with a waiting list, has been the consequence in some locations where autism is a hot topic. She flips the usual patient-doctor relationship on its head by logging her responses to medications and being far more proactive than has been the pattern for most of the time. We will make dramatic gains in understanding as the patient-doctor relationship becomes one of mutual respect and discovery to a greater extent than ten minutes and here's a pill. MIT is pioneering N=1 medical research as well I believe. I look forward to hearing more on this topic.
We are a Delhi based company into Market and Opinion Research now ventruing into software development. Over the years we have built an exhaustive database of people in some selected Indian districts including their remotest villages. Through our association with an NGO that is committed to make a cluster of 500 villages (in Madhya Pradesh region) self reliant (a large part of which is directed to provide alternative and affordable health services) we are of opinion that we can provide a very good ground and infrastructural support for implenting the ideas like that of electronic medical record. I would love to work towards this and I can be reached at sanket.purbey@gmail.com
Dear Arjun, we are currently piloting Kiosks (EMR) in Rajasthan villages. India Abroad carried this story: Meet the man who delivers health care to rural India: Rediff.com News If it interests you, you may reach me at bp@sustainableinnovations.us. Thanks, BP
Dear Mr Ashish Kothari and colleagues, I am part of a newly formed JV between Intel Corp & Grameen, with the expressed agenda to work on and develop sustainable and scalable/replicable rural social biz models (that leverage ICT) in various areas (livelihoods, health care, education..)in order to bring about socio-economic impact. Key to this is involving local entrepreneurs and value-chains to creation of a value-for-value paradigm that is crucial to sustaining such initiatives. eg We are working in remote areas of Orissa, India to help the cause of the marginal farmer, improving his earnings and providing him the means to improve other lifestyle indicators (edn, health etc). In Bangladesh, we are involved in primary healthcare, developing tools that simplify, prioritize & reduce the health care workload of the rural doctor, so he can address the most serious cases first. There may be many synergies for your group at MIT to explore with us...I can be reached via email at Srinivas.B.Garudachar@intel.com, and on my cell : +91 9845150087. Look forward to hear from you, Srini
dear dr.ARJUN It is great word of encouragement to read about your vision in bottoms up theory in india.i am working on rural healthcare project in remote part of maharashtra.i have planed to focus on rural healthcare as the challenge to travel the distance between the commercial health industry to charitable noneffective idealistic free service.the contrast leads to ineffective outcome. the assimilation of modern inexpensive but effective n affordable health care is the challenge i have taken up.i am sure of creating a first rate medical infrastructure technology to make available localy to docters n patients. definately your contribution will make a positive differance to my DREAM. Looking forward to get in touch. stay fit.
I was reminded of Temple Grandin, and her ground-breaking discussion of the autistic spectrum, from the patient's point of view.
We need programs like this: Healthbox is an accelerator program for healthcare startups. Founded earlier this year by business incubator Sandbox Industries, Healthbox enjoys the support of nationally-renowned organizations that foster innovation in healthcare, including BlueCross BlueShield Venture Partners and Walgreens, to name a few. Applications are now open on the Healthbox website for high-potential healthcare entrepreneurs to participate in Healthbox's intensive 12-week program that provides collaborative workspace, mentorship from industry experts and $50,000 in seed capital. The program is set to begin in Chicago in January 2012.
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