4 Lessons of Health Technology Innovation: From Plato to NASA Satellites
An edited excerpt from the book Rebooting Global Health: Changing How We Approach Health Technology.
In the Mediterranean coastal cities of classical Greece, a young man had a revolutionary idea that would spark health innovation throughout history. This man was Hippocrates, the father of medicine.
As Plato theorized and debated the pillars of justice, Hippocrates traveled and built the pillars of modern healthcare. A disease was not a mystical curse of the Greek gods, Hippocrates taught his students. Rather, disease occurs naturally.
Of his many contributions to the development of medicine, I believe his most significant health innovation was simply adding hands to the list of medical aids. The Greeks already used their hands as tools with which to clap, wield a sword, and grab a spoon. But Hippocrates looked at the end of his arm and saw a thermometer.
Hippocrates was one of the earliest, if not the first, recorded in history to recommend using hands to judge if a fever was present in a patient.
Traveling forward in time, almost two thousand years into war-raging medieval Europe and the Age of the Enlightenment, various remarkable minds advanced the technology of the thermometer.
As kingdoms fought valiantly for territory and riches, inventors and scientists. Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Anders Celsius, William Thomson Kelvin, Gerard van Swieten, Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit, and the creator of the medical thermometer, Thomas Allbut all fought tirelessly for progress and innovation. So, where did this temperature-measuring journey of 2,100 years get us, in the broad scheme of innovative technologies?
Today, we use the thermometer everywhere, or at least a variation of it. The next time you start your car, look at the dashboard. You will notice a small hand moving on the display of the temperature gauge, indicating the temperature of the engine’s coolant. That is the engine coolant temperature sensor (ECT). In space, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) uses cutting-edge satellite technology integrated with thermometers to measure temperature beyond Earth’s atmosphere. In laboratories, scientists use bimetallic strips and infrared thermometers, as well as thermistors. In the field of forensics, crime scene investigators (CSI) use thermometers to help determine the time of death.
Innovation is cross-cutting — impacting all sectors. If the thermometer can have applications across industries and purposes, imagine the level of impact other technologies in the health field might have.
What can we learn from the history of innovation in health technology? What can we learn from 2,100 years of innovation — from using hands in ancient Greece, to new-generation satellite technology in space?
Lessons from History
“Study the past if you would define the future.” — Confucius
1. Needs Sparks Solutions
It is safe to conclude that innovation’s appearance throughout history was sparked by a need — where there is a need, there will be a solution. That is precisely what happened in the history of the thermometer. Ever since many inventors in medieval Europe decided to develop new devices to measure temperature, the idea driving innovation was the same — the need to measure temperature accurately. Scientists tried using alcohol and water, but it was not until the introduction of mercury by Daniel Fahrenheit that thermometers were applied in medicine.
Examples of historical needs and solutions:
- Need (Measuring temperature) → Solution (Mercury thermometer)
- Need (Accurate cancer diagnosis) → Solution (Magnetic resonance imaging- MRI)
- Need (Late delivery of medical products) → Solution (Drones)
Some of the solutions above were not originally designed to meet the specific need in the healthcare sector. For example, magnetic resonance imaging was “invented” in 1945, but the medical application of that technology did not happen until 1969. Similarly, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), popularly known as “drones,” can be traced back to as far as the First World War. Today, we use small drones to transport medicines and blood products for medical procedures.
Keep in mind that improvements in technology are part of innovation. Someone does not need to create from scratch a revolutionary piece of technology, but they can retrofit technologies to improve processes, systems and the overall health of a population. Innovators can use technology that already exists to reapply differently or improve its efficiency. Regardless if innovation is creating something new or not, history teaches that needs will spark solutions.
2. Faster Innovation is Leading to Cheaper Technology
Further adding to the transformations of tools for medical practitioners, 2,100 years of development can now happen in a single decade. Faster developments in technology can also mean cheaper technology.
According to the World Economic Forum, “As technology gets more advanced, prices drop and products get better.” Today, computers have become a relatively cheap technology, accessible to people across the planet. That was not always the case.
A report by USA Today revealed an interesting perspective on the evolution of computer prices. ”Though many personal computers in the early 1970s were much cheaper, the most basic model of an HP 3000 sold for $95,000 in 1972, the equivalent of slightly over half a million in today’s dollars. Today, a brand-new computer costs just a few hundred dollars and has capabilities that in 1972 were in the realm of science fiction.”
Technology is becoming more accessible to the general population, which in turn brings and is bringing us one step closer to increased access to critical health services for those in need. Raj Kumar is the CEO and founder of Devex, the world’s leading social enterprise and media platform for the global development community. He believes the digital revolution our generation is experiencing can provide a positive health impact on the most vulnerable populations. “The question is, mostly, how do you accelerate it, and how do you make sure it reaches people most in need, the people who might get left behind with digitization?”
Collaboration will lead to insightful technological solutions to reach those in most need, and faster innovations are making technologies cheaper and more accessible to low-income countries.
3. Collaboration is at the Heart of Innovation
Dr. Roberto Botelho is a renowned and highly respected cardiologist and director of the Triangulo Heart Institute, including its interventional cardiology and clinical research divisions. An entrepreneur and founder of various successful health technology start-ups, Dr. Botelho recognizes, in this century, any innovation in health technology cannot ignore collaboration between different disciplines and sectors.
“Innovation is multidisciplinary and requires collaboration, or else itself is not innovation,” Dr. Botelho says. “It is very hard to innovate without collaboration.” In a recent interview, he explained to me organizations risk being “deleted from the market” if they fail to collaborate. “You cannot reach the potential of innovation, especially innovation in this environment of exponential technological growth we live in.”
Technology is speeding up every day. Collaboration is the ticket. We need to decide whether we want to jump into the train of progress or get left behind in the last century.
4. Diversity leads to Innovation
A final note on the lessons we have received from history is based on the diversity involved with innovation. The past has often relied on scientists from different backgrounds and sectors working together to transform the state of their own modern technologies.
Ferdinand II de’ Medici was a wealthy, though failed, statesman. Ole Røme was a revolutionary astronomer who traveled to England to collaborate with Isaac Newton. Baron Kelvin was an avid yachtsman and engineer who loved navigating, and Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit was a merchant’s apprentice who traveled all over Europe. Even Sir Isaac Newton, who was a physicist and mathematician who discovered the principles of modern physics, made a tremendous impact. That’s even despite having to work from home as a young college student when the plague hit Europe — sound familiar?
Professor and neurologist Dr. Jefferson G. Fernandes serves as digital health entrepreneur and vice president of the Brazilian Association of Telemedicine and Telehealth. He believes that the heat of human interaction is ignited by diversity and collaboration.
“Innovation does not happen in an isolated environment,” Dr. Fernandes has found. Innovation requires human interaction, and for that reason, both diversity and equity are fundamental.
RISE Womxn CEO and founder Shana Abraham is an emerging global health advocate for women’s empowerment. I asked Abraham what propels her passion to help push equity and diversity to the forefront of innovation.
“Every day, I meet more people who are different than me, and I realize just how small my worldview is,” Abraham said. “Everyone has a lens through which they look at the world, and people don’t realize your perspective is just a lens.” Author of the book RISE: How Empowering Women Elevates Us All, Abraham sees diversity in collaboration as a means to inform not only one’s work but also one’s self-awareness. “Collaborating with other people helps you better understand not just your own perspective and how that may have formed, but maybe some of the things you’re missing, too, and wouldn’t have been able to note if you hadn’t collaborated.”
Some of the world’s greatest minds contributed to the development of the thermometer. These innovators had different upbringings, worked in different sectors, came from different countries, spoke different languages, were educated in different universities, and had different hobbies. What unifies them in their greatness is they collaborated. Some inventors collaborated with each other, whereas others had to travel to other countries to reach across sectors and meet different people. Despite their differences, white men were the driving force behind the development of the thermometer. However, we need to ensure we are including all voices in the process of collaborating for innovation.
“When it comes to policy rollout, so many people at the local level — whether they are health professionals or community members — are women, and they are not included at the table,” Abraham says. To local policy makers, she offers this challenge: “It’s not enough to just be given a seat at the table; you have to listen to their voices. Are you listening? Are you taking their ideas and concerns seriously? Are you giving them credit and validating their ideas and experiences?”
In our globalized world, we have tools, access, and awareness that enable us to tap into diversity from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and political backgrounds, to bring everyone to the table, to listen, to learn, and to inform health technology innovation from their perspective. Through this more inclusive, equitable, and effective approach to innovation, we can provide health technology interventions people actually need, instead of giving them what we think they need.
The Past and the Future Collide
In history, collaboration in health technology has led to cheaper technology that became widely accessible, as shown in the thermometer. Imagine if we can do the same in medical logistics, consultations, prostheses, laboratories, health information systems, and many other types of medical equipment.
Our biggest problem today isn’t that medical practitioners lack access to high-end technology. After all, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and autonomous drones are just a few of the science fiction technologies we have in our tool belt. Our biggest problem is the lack of efficient and effective interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral collaboration. By stepping across the aisle to ensure a more equitable and inclusive effort, we could propel patient-centered and need-based innovation. If we develop health technology to reach the most vulnerable populations, then we will have taken one step closer toward reducing the gap of access to care. Collaborating to spark innovation in health technology will save lives, money and, improve applications of technology.
Alcir Santos Neto is the author of the book “Rebooting Global Health: Changing How We Approach Health Technology” and the Founder of the organization, Rebooting Global Health. A former U.S. Army Medic, he holds a master’s degree in International Relations and has multisector experience working as a consultant and researcher. His ultimate goal? Impact global health and international relations by empowering people worldwide to be a positive force of change.