Wanted: Health problem solvers

Innovation is generally thought to be key to development and to helping to overcome health challenges both nationally and globally.  

The term “innovation” does not only refer to the introduction and adaptation of technologies. It covers the entire value chain — from the generation of new ideas and their transformation into new or improved products, services, methods and processes to their implementation.  

Examples of innovations that have made a fundamental impact on health globally include vaccines and antibiotics that can be produced in large quantities at low cost and with a long shelf life, as well as medical devices for diagnosis, therapy and rehabilitation. 

Innovations in agriculture, such as pesticides, fertilisers and irrigation, which improve food security, have a positive effect on health by reducing malnutrition.  

Observed treatment for tuberculosis is a nontechnological innovation to improve adherence to medication, introduced in response to the global tuberculosis epidemic. 

Examples abound, but an idea only becomes a health innovation if it is developed towards an intended function to benefit health and be implemented.  

In developing countries, particularly, the gap between solution and implementation is large because solutions are often imported from the industrialised world with little consideration for their suitability for local conditions.  

Who then are the health innovators and what role does the university play in health innovation? Given the university as a place where ideas are developed and its mandate to educate engaged citizens able to contribute economically and socially, it should play a key role in innovation and in producing innovators.  

If we accept that the definition of innovation includes implementation, these functions of the university should extend beyond research. 

The university should produce health innovators, and it can only do so by training them in health innovation. Programmes in biomedical engineering, such as the postgraduate degrees at the universities of Cape Town (UCT) and Stellenbosch, and the bachelor’s degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, focus on technological innovation. 

But the complexity and systemic nature of our health challenges require approaches that are broader than this, which can examine innovations with reference to the environments in and that they are applied so that implementation is contextually appropriate and effective.  

The postgraduate diploma in healthcare technology management at the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria’s healthcare infrastructure and technologies programme address management and health system concerns. 

But South African universities do not offer educational programmes that directly address health innovation in its broad definition. 

For this reason, the biomedical engineering division at UCT is expanding its focus to include health innovation. From 2015, we will offer a postgraduate module called “health innovation and design”, which aims to equip students with the tools to design, implement and evaluate context-appropriate interventions to improve health and to conduct health-related research at all points of the innovation chain.  

The module will be open to postgraduate students across all disciplines at UCT, who will be able take it in addition to the formal requirements of their degree programmes.  

The intention is to attract a diverse group of students from different disciplinary backgrounds and who have a passion for solving problems in health and health care. We expect the diversity of perspectives represented in the class to promote collective creativity and innovative thinking.  

The module will become a component of a postgraduate qualification in health innovation to be offered in future. 

For the module and the anticipated qualification, we are partnering with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, which has created a platform for the development and implementation of sustainable solutions for a range of local challenges. 

It is our intention that the new health innovation and design module, and later the full postgraduate qualification, will provide a structured approach for innovative thinking to address the burden of disease. 

We hope to enable students to identify opportunities and implement mechanisms for creating social and economic value for better health, and to address the gap between solution and implementation. 

Preparing students to engage with, and innovate for, their social context assists the university in its developmental role. 

Nailah Conrad is a postdoctoral fellow in the biomedical engineering division at UCT. Tania Douglas is a professor of biomedical engineering and deputy dean for research in the faculty of health sciences at UCT. She is an associate of UCT’s programme for the enhancement of research capacity for 2013-2014

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