When you consider that there are people in high-income countries who are struggling to afford good health care, it might appear obvious that it can only be afforded by wealthy people, or by people who have access to the bank accounts of wealthy people (including wealthy taxpayers). That perception is not entirely wrong – access to the most advanced medical technologies is often costly. Research, equipment embodying high technology and extensive staff training have to be paid for one way or another.
However, it is surprising how good, and how affordable, the health care available to ordinary people in developing countries could be with appropriate technology and incentives. The book, Pharmacy on a Bicycle, by Eric Bing and Marc Epstein, provides many examples of good health care being provided at low cost in low-income countries.
The authors are well qualified to write on this topic. Eric Bing is a physician with an MBA, who works on global health challenges at the George W Bush Institute. Marc Epstein is a business school professor, who has a special interest in commercializing technology in developing countries. The authors acknowledge assistance of several other people including their editor, Troy Camplin.
The book is written around the acronym: IMPACTS.
“I” stands for innovation and entrepreneurship. In some instances products have been designed specifically for use in developing countries. For example, to detect heart abnormalities General Electric designed a low cost ECG. The product was developed for use in India but is now marketed globally.
“M” stands for maximizing efficiency and effectiveness. An example provided is the Aravind Eye Center in India which uses a production line process to undertake a large number of surgeries per day. This reduces cost, but it also improves surgeons’ skills and enhances the quality of care they can provide.
“P” stands for partner coordination. This is not always about government regulation. For example, VisionSpring, a non-profit organisation, has developed partnerships with schools and businesses to provide inexpensive spectacles to students and workers.
“A” stands for accountability. As might be expected, the authors emphasize the need to set clear goals and targets, and to monitor and evaluate performance to support effective decision-making. This is easier said than done, particularly in the public sectors of low-income countries, but the authors manage to find examples to illustrate how accountability systems have improved performance.
“C” stands for creating demand. The benefits of services are not always obvious to potential users. One method of creating demand discussed by the authors is the use of vouchers which enable consumers to obtain access to services at reduced cost. They can also create competition among providers and create incentives for them to give low-cost, quality care. Several examples are provided of successful use of vouchers, but the one that appealed most to my imagination was an experiment in Uganda where expectant mothers were given vouchers to take motorcycle taxis to attend a clinic for prenatal care, delivery and postnatal care.
“T” stands for task shifting. This involves shifting tasks from doctors to nurses and from nurses to community providers or patients. Task shifting reduces bottlenecks and reduces cost. For example, nurses have been trained to conduct screening in a program for prevention of cervical cancer in Zambia. Photographs were taken as part of the procedure and reviewed on a weekly basis by doctors and nurses. Over time, nurses became nearly as accurate in their diagnoses as doctors.
“S” stands for scaling. How can innovations that have proved successful for small groups of people be scaled up to reach more people? The authors claim: “By focusing heavily on the fundamentals of program, process and passion, organisations operating in even the most challenging of conditions can achieve scale while maintaining outstanding quality”. The contribution the authors have provided on the scaling question seems to me to be a good example of the well-meaning, but ineffectual, approach that management experts tend to adopt when they are confronted with economic problems.
Readers might have gathered by now that I think the discussion of the scaling issue is the weak point of this book. In scaling up successful pilot programs to reach large numbers of people the prime consideration has to be to ensure that organisations (firms) have appropriate incentives to deliver high quality goods at low cost. It would be useful for more consideration to be given to the question of whether market incentives, such as those that drive high quality service delivery around the world in franchise operations such as McDonalds’ fast food restaurants, could apply to a greater extent to delivery of medical services in developing countries. An irrational aversion to the idea of McDonaldizing health seems to prevent governments from allowing health markets to function effectively in the interests of patients.
My overall impression of this book is favourable, despite the reservations just expressed. The authors have done an admirable job in demonstrating that there is potential for a lot more people in the world to have access to high quality, affordable health care.