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From Innovation to Impact: Our Growing Collaboration with Duke University

I would like to join the chorus of accolades for all the finalists of the Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development, but especially Duke University. In response to this challenge, Duke researchers designed a heat-sealed pouch, which stores lifesaving HIV medication in doses appropriate for infants. The pouch is designed to be administered to a newborn during the first week of life, including following a homebirth and by a nonclinician, with the aim of preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission.

Duke’s submission was one of over 600 proposals received by USAID for the newly created innovation grants and was one of only 19 to win funding in the first round. During the award ceremony last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton singled out the Pratt Pouch as an example of an impressive idea that could potentially have far-reaching impact. With this new grant, the university and its partners will be able to test the pouch’s accuracy and acceptability with women living with HIV and their infants. Further testing will also help answer some of the outstanding questions about how to create a system to sustainably scale up the use of this promising technology. IntraHealth International is thrilled to be working with Duke on this and other innovations that have the potential to improve the quality, quantity, reach, and sustainability of health care services.

Over the last several years, IntraHealth has been exploring how to best facilitate and promote innovation in our programs. Given our commitment to championing health workers, we are most interested in innovations—whether they are biomedical, information technology, or training—that expand a health worker’s reach and help them care for people more safely, with improved efficiency, and more affordably. Within this context, IntraHealth and Duke University Pratt School of Engineering with its partner Engineering World Health jointly sought out a strategic alliance over five years ago. 

Our earliest collaboration began in 2007 when we organized a series of “ideastorming” sessions among our clinical staff to identify how biomedical innovations might ameliorate real world challenges and gaps that frontline health workers were facing. Out of these sessions came ideas that ranged from a simple bleach solution monitoring system to encourage accurate and effective infection-prevention measures to a bottle topper to improve accuracy and reduce waste when dispensing very small quantities of liquid medicine—for example, nevirapine.  

Undergraduate engineering students at Duke worked with Dr. Bob Malkin to develop initial prototypes for a number of these potential innovations. Some students also engaged with IntraHealth clinicians to better understand the potential needs and requirements of health workers, patients, and clinics. These early collaborations set the stage for the eventual design of the Pratt Pouch and the interdisciplinary engagement necessary for true innovation.

Not all innovations require a new technology, however. Engineering World Health is a global leader in building the capacity of people in developing countries to maintain and repair biomedical equipment. This includes training lower-cadre health professionals to become biomedical technicians. Around the world, vast quantities of medical equipment go unused because no one is available to repair even the most basic of equipment. IntraHealth provided early advice in the development of prototype training materials by sharing relevant resources such as IntraHealth’s Training Standards and Learning for Performance.

Recently, IntraHealth’s global project, CapacityPlus,published an interview with Melissa Driver Beard, executive director and CEO of Engineering World Health, about the importance of biomedical technician cadres as nontraditional health workers. This interview is part of the Human Resources for Health (HRH) Global Resource Center HRH Leaders in Action Series. Dr. Malkin, founder of Engineering World Health, also spoke earlier this summer at TedxChapelHill, which was sponsored by IntraHealth.

IntraHealth continues to seek partnerships with universities, nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and individuals who are seeking creative solutions to the many challenges that health workers face in delivering quality, sustainable health care to those who need it most. If you have a great idea, please get in touch, and we would love to talk.