This blog post is written with Pepijn Veling, Utrecht University, Netherlands.
There is a general consensus that U.S. healthcare needs major reform. Can reverse innovation — innovations originating from poor countries — provide one important answer? Most definitely.
In the U.S., the approach is to spend more money on major technological advances and come up with innovative products and solutions. In poor countries, the innovation paradigm is just the opposite: spend less and innovate new business models. Poor countries face severe resource constraints. They just cannot afford to spend a lot. Constraints need not be limiting, they can actually be liberating.
The ultra low-cost, high-quality prostheses innovation of Dr. Therdchai Jivacate and the Prostheses Foundation of Thailand is an inspiring example of this. Over the years, they have developed and delivered over 25,000 affordable and appropriate artificial legs to amputees in remote areas of Thailand and surrounding countries. In the U.S., an artificial leg costs about $10,000 and the delivery time is 7-10 days. The Prostheses Foundation of Thailand is able to do it for less than $100, about 1% of the U.S. cost, and their delivery time is 1-3 days.
Though Dr. Jivacate spent four years as a resident of physical medicine and rehabilitation in Northwestern University, he understood that conventional artificial legs were unaffordable and inappropriate for the majority of Thai amputees. There are several reasons. First, customers in rural Thailand simply cannot afford to pay a high price. For the poor making $2 a day, a $10,000 product would require 5,000 days of income. (With 200 working days a year, that amounts to an incredible 50 years). Second, the context and functional requirements for amputees in Thailand are vastly different from those in the U.S. Thai people do many of their daily activities with bare feet, sitting squat on the floor or cross-legged, and many work in wet paddy fields. Furthermore, while many roads in the U.S. are paved, Thai people walk on uneven roads. Finally, the expensive artificial legs are only available in Bangkok, thus making it virtually inaccessible to the rest of the population.