In the United States health care accounts for 17.9 percent of GDP spending, the highest of anywhere in the world. While this statistic isn’t quite as high in other nations (China’s healthcare spending comprises 5.4 percent of GDP, Nigeria’s 6.1 percent, and Brazil’s weighs in at 9.3 percent), this fact does exemplify the desperate need for more affordable health care in the US and abroad.

Enter frugal medicine. Frugal medical innovation is a broad term used to describe low-cost diagnostic tools and technological equipment distributed at the Base of the Pyramid (BOP) to increase access to and quality of care in underserved and impoverished regions. Over the past decade there has been a boom in this space, especially in China and India which have undergone unprecedented economic expansion and growth in the tertiary (service) sector. From 1992-2005 annual growth in this sector in China and India was 6.2% and 10.2% respectively, and was a large trigger for the rapid consumerism and developmental growth of both countries.

Despite this growth there remained a large gap in medical care between economic classes, and cost of care stayed high. In response to this gap, as companies began focusing on low-cost innovations (technological improvements and devices) in other industries, they also focused on reducing the cost of medical care and equipment, making healthcare more accessible and affordable to all individuals (a movement similar to the development of more affordable, generic drugs in the US). In the Marketing Society’s Quarterly Journal, Melanie Howard discusses the spread of these ‘lower-cost alternatives”:

…just as education has helped fuel the success of the creative economy in the UK over the past decade, the educated there in the BRIC countries are now turning their minds to developing products and services that will offer the benefits of advanced consumerism at a fraction of the price, to satisfy the needs of those further down the food chain. Many of these new inventors and entrepreneurs from the emerging markets also appear to have questions of social justice and sustainability very much in their mind… In healthcare, stunning new ideas are reducing the cost of bringing advanced diagnostics and treatment to the masses.

Here are some examples of frugal medical innovations—these include both diagnostic tools that allow for quality of life improvements at a much lower price to patients (such as the low price prosthetic limbs sold by Jaipur Foot) and equipment that creates affordable access to healthier environments (like Professor Michael Gordon’s research into ways better access to nets and bug zappers can lower malaria rates in Ghana and Tanzania).

Further Reading:

Image credit: Simon Berry via flickr

About The Author

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Mark Wien is the co-founder of the Micro Equity Development Fund, a for-profit, social initiative focused on connecting investors with investment opportunities in microfinance, particularly micro-equity. Mark also co-founded an e-commerce site which launched in March 2014. After six years in finance, Mark is currently in medical school with hopes of bridging his business background with medicine to improve access to and quality of healthcare worldwide. He will be joining Hippo as a frequent correspondent exploring the topics of public health, the intersection of medicine and business, healthcare, and microfinance. Twitter: @MarkWien;