Looking into health innovation in the Division of Biomedical Engineering at UCT

The MPhil in Health Innovation degree offered in the Division of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Cape Town aims to build capacity in creative problem-solving to address health in South Africa in an impactful way. There is a strong emphasis on engaging with communities and health professionals to address real problems.

The health innovation programme develops an approach to problem-solving beyond that which may be expected from more traditional disciplinary programmes: expending significant effort on clarifying and framing the problem before coming up with solutions; making people the focus of the problem-solving process (who are the users and what are their needs?); examining the context of the problem and gaining a deep understanding of the social factors associated with it; gathering different perspectives for a comprehensive view of the problem; and testing potential solutions with end users and making improvements based on user feedback before settling upon a final solution.

These phases are key components of an approach called design thinking, which forms the core of the MPhil curriculum. It aims to produce innovators with a particular mind-set — one that allows for a rich understanding of the problem and its environment. It is characterised by empathy; humility in approaching a challenge accompanied by a willingness to experiment and the confidence to fail and try again; teamwork and collaboration; and learning by doing.

Students apply the design thinking approach in teams, and work iteratively towards first defining and understanding a problem, then exploring solutions, and finally settling on the best solution. During this process, they work closely with the individuals who are expected to benefit from the solution, taking the social context into account throughout the design process. Project settings include hospitals, clinics and community organisations.

This master’s programme is intended to address the gap that often exists between ideas and their translation and implementation to improve health; this gap exists when ideas are developed in isolation and with insufficient attention to the problem environment and the factors that might hinder the implementation of solutions.

In addition to learning and practising the design thinking approach, students attend courses in public health for a solid grounding in the South African health context. The curriculum also includes a course in entrepreneurship, which exposes students to the challenges of taking ideas to market and to the factors to be considered in converting ideas into social and economic value. The programme culminates in an individual research project in which students may focus on any aspect of the health innovation chain. Project examples include working with a medical imaging company to understand and improve the user experiences of clients using their products; reviewing the impact of mobile health applications in the South African health system; and examining the extent and impact of local contributions to medical device development.

The MPhil programme is open to students with a four-year degree in any discipline, who are able to demonstrate an interest in health and health innovation. Students from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds — engineering, social sciences, health sciences and others — work together on projects to identify and address real health challenges, bringing together different perspectives to enhance collective creativity.

Graduates will be able to add value at different levels of the health system, in organisations mandated to support health in communities, and in companies that provide healthcare solutions. The MPhil in Health Innovation is the first of its kind in South Africa, and one of only a few around the world.

Tania Douglas is a professor in the division of biomedical engineering and the department of science and technology/National Research Foundation research chair in biomedical engineering and innovation at the University of Cape Town

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