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Innovators In Health -Addressing The Challenges Of Treating TB

Raj Melville

Every year nearly 10 million new cases of Tuberculosis (TB) are identified worldwide and around 1.7 million people die from the disease. In India alone, the WHO estimates, about 2 million new TB patients are added every year, and over 300,000 deaths are attributed to TB. Fortunately TB is completely curable if it is identified in a patient and a rigorous six month regimen of antibiotics is followed. The challenge is ensuring patients follow the regimen to completion. Most governments provide the drugs free of cost to poorer patients. To ensure adherence, health workers deliver the pills and monitor the patients using manual charts.

Trying to get the pills to patients in rural areas and ensuring compliance is a resource intensive and error prone process. More significantly, should a patient stop taking their medication partially through the regimen, they increase the risk of developing a drug resistant form of TB. It costs nearly 100 times more to treat a patient with drug resistant TB than ensuring complete compliance to a regular regimen of TB treatment.

Focusing on the need to address a widespread though treatable health issue, the 2007 MIT IDEAS Competition set up a Yunus Innovation Challenge Award for students to come up with innovative solutions for this problem. Since 2001, the MIT IDEAS Competition has provided an opportunity for members of the MIT community to develop creative ideas for projects that make a positive impact in the world.

A team of seven MIT students and alums lead by Manish Bhardwaj won the $7500 prize with a unique solution consisting of a low cost instrumented pill-box and a cell phone based interface for data gathering. Their innovative solution consists of a rugged palm-sized pill dispenser that holds four weeks worth of medication. It lights up to remind the patient to take their medication, records when they do so and locks itself to prevent double dosing. The health care worker can open the box with an electronic key, the uKey, to refill it and to upload the stored patient compliance data. In addition, a cell phone based interface, the uPhone, allows the health worker to collect additional patient data and upload it to a central location for further analysis. The team expects to manufacture the pillbox for $10-$15 in volume, enabling them to keep costs to around $2 per patient over the expected life of the box.

Since winning the contest last year, Manish and his team have forged ahead with their idea, starting a venture called “Innovators in Health” and refining the design with over nine iterations of the pillbox prototype. They teamed up with the Prajnopaya Foundation to train 22 health care workers in Dhanarua, Bihar this January on using the pillbox, and plan to conduct a 400 person, 8 month field test this summer in Bihar.  In addition to the MIT award, they have been recognized as the best executed student initiated business plan for a social enterprise by the RGK Center at the University of Texas in Austin. They have also won the Advanced Entrepreneurship Team award given by the NCIIA/Lemelson Foundation

Their work has been written up in the Boston Globe, The New York Times and other publications. The positive press has helped open some doors but the challenges of fund raising still lie ahead. In addition to finishing up his Ph. D. at MIT, Manish, together with his team, has also been busy trying to raise around $400K to cover their expenses for the first full year of implementation. Manish is optimistic. “We believe we have a rugged solution that will withstand handling in the target rural areas and that is cost effective for the health care providers.” says Manish. “Our team is committed to making this happen and we are moving ahead. I expect to be in Bihar in May to kick off the small scale pilot with the people we trained earlier.”

If you know of organizations that might be interested in helping Innovators for Health or in their product, you can contact them at: info@innovatorsinhealth.org

For more information on some of the organizations mentioned in this article:
Innovators in Health: http://www.innovatorsinhealth.org/
MIT IDEAS Competition: http://web.mit.edu/ideas

You can contact me with ideas, suggestions or for more information at: SELokvani@gmail.com

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