Geneva Health Forum 2016: Creating sustainable innovation

21 Apr 2016

This week saw the 6th edition of the Geneva Health Forum. One thousand experts from around the world including field practitioners, clinicians, public and private sector representatives, aid organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), came together to discuss major global health issues.

“Effecting real change involves a radically different way of thinking”

– Marcus Peschl, University of Vienna

The theme for 2016 was sustainable and affordable innovations in healthcare, and covered both technological and social innovation across a wide variety of topics, from Access to Zika. Both innovation theory and examples of innovation in practice were included, with a total of 67 different sessions.

“We don’t know where the next revolution will come from”

– Marcel Salathé

Technological development is an obvious source of innovation, which we are keen to encourage through the Longitude Prize. Marcel Salathé, of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne(link is external), started his talk about the IT revolution in health by asking Siri, using his Apple Watch, to set a timer for his presentation. This illustrated that it is often the most radical ideas which eventually gain traction, however surprising or ridiculous they may seem at first.

He framed the use of IT within the context of accessibility: mobile technology has proliferated worldwide, with 96.8% of the world now covered by at least a 2G mobile cellular network. The ability of IT to provide innovative solutions to improve healthcare is therefore enormous and should be utilised.

“For social innovation, impact is more important than novelty”

– Lindi van Niekerk

However, it was social innovation, implemented when conventional systems have failed or new problems arise, which took centre stage. Social innovation is rooted in community-led initiatives, where locals take ownership and impact is key. Discussion topics included:

  • innovation during humanitarian crises and migration
  • holistic approaches to treating sexual violence
  • new ways to reduce the global burden of paediatric death

Of particular interest for us was a workshop chaired by Francis Moussy, diagnostics lead at WHO and member of our advisory panel, which discussed the role social innovation could play in delivering diagnostics.

“Even the best diagnostic will not yield results if it cannot be accessed”

– Ashvini Vyas, Operation ASHA

Lindi van Niekerk, of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Cape Town University, described how a social innovation approach to providing access to diagnostics could extend reach, capacitate communities to become more engaged, bridge the gap to gain results, engage beyond laboratories and provide business models that enable affordable cost.

All of this improves accessibility to potentially ground breaking advances in science and technology where they are most needed, and existing approaches could be scaled up worldwide. Discussions centred particularly around innovations within the context of tuberculosis, malaria and human papilloma virus.

“New technologies – improved access – better health”

– Robert Terry

Key to ensuring the success of innovation in health care is funding. Robert Terry, tropical diseases specialist at WHO, described how, because funding research is a risk as there are more failures than successes, a mixed approach is needed which balances funding “quick wins” with more long-term efforts. Funds should come from new and additional pooled sources and should result in widespread access, which includes having an entry level price.

Terry also suggested that accessibility to new technologies could be significantly improved by collating Target Product Profiles (TPPs), currently often private, into a public resource to inform the scale-up of new technologies.

“There are different diagnostic needs for different health settings”

– Sabine Dittrich

Sabine Dittrich from FIND reiterated the importance of using TPPs, but in the context of biomarker-based discrimination between bacterial and viral infections, during a session on new approaches against antimicrobial resistance.

She described how tests do not always retain their accuracy when used in resource-limited settings as most people access care at the community and healthpost level, not in hospitals. Dittrich proposed that TPPs should be used as a tool to communicate to partners, stakeholders and developers of diagnostics the requirements that will ensure new products are successful in these settings.

This approach embodies one of the main messages from the forum: Sustainable health innovation is only possible by understanding and integrating with local settings, to ensure widespread access to healthcare where it is most needed.

The Geneva Health Forum is the regional meeting of the World Health Summit, which happens yearly in a different city.