What the Hack! Leveraging the crowd to solve some of the world’s toughest healthcare challenges

Healthcare is a niche sector and therefore innovation has often been restricted to those people who are already a part of the field. It can be difficult for people from outside the sector to participate because the healthcare field is highly regulated, requires deep pockets for extended investments and strong domain knowledge of clinical workflows. Combine this with the ever-changing dynamics of healthcare services across the world. In the “mature” economies, you have roughly 1.2 billion people being serviced by a $5 trillion healthcare industry. Contrast this with “emerging” economies where roughly 5 billion people are being serviced by a $1 trillion healthcare industry. This shows that the global healthcare challenge is bi-polar in nature. On one end of the spectrum you have economies with surplus capacity, underutilization and the need for productivity and optimization. On the flip side, you have those where basic access to healthcare infrastructure is lacking. Therefore, a traditional approach to problem solving in this space yields very limited results.

There is a silver lining though. India represents the crucible for disruptive healthcare innovation. This is primarily driven by two reasons – one, the entrepreneurial mindset of care providers and two, the constraint of affordability that they need to overcome. While setting up a healthcare service is a means to access large populations that do not have access to care, it is also a true test in business viability as almost all costs for healthcare services are borne out of pocket by the patients and their families.

Some statistics that drive this point home: India spends roughly 4.5% of its GDP on healthcare. Of this, approximately only 1% comes from the government. All other costs are paid for by the private economy. Insurance is sub-scale in India – less than 5% of our overall population is insured and therefore there is almost no form of subsidy available to patients. Though the average household income levels are growing, for a middle class family, one MR scan can set you back two months’ savings. Therefore, as a provider, you are required to work on constant innovation around cash flows, business optimization, service quality and productivity all while ensuring positive outcomes for the patient. There are several examples that have shown the way for others to adopt – LV Prasad Eye Institute, Aravind Eye Care, Vaatsalya, Narayana Hrudayalaya and the list continues to grow. What this means to us is the availability of a special pool of customers – people who can help reimagine the way healthcare can be provided at cost levels and quality levels that disrupt the access-affordability challenge.

Open innovation and crowdsourcing have been around for some time now. In the past, companies such as P&G and Dell have utilized the power of the crowd – both internally within their corporations and externally – to derive disruptive and meaningful solutions that translate to immense customer value. However, over the last few years, this trend has seen a surge in the way crowdsourcing models have been applied to innovation and problem solving. From Kickstarter and NineSigma to 99Designs and Quirky+GE, organizations are slowly but surely moving towards harnessing the power of the crowd for a variety of unsolved problems. Take a look at some of the well-known platforms in vogue today at http://www.boardofinnovation.com/list-open-innovation-crowdsourcing-examples/


Leveraging the power of the crowd

How do we leverage the power of the crowd to solve some of our challenges in healthcare?  In order to test this out, GE’s India Technology Center decided to partner with CAMTech – Consortium for Affordable Medical Technologies – a non-profit venture based out of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. With their partners in emerging markets, primarily from Africa and India, we had access to clinicians, policy administrators, funding agencies and start-ups and, above all else, an ecosystem of collaborators to co-create solutions. We hosted our first hackathon – Jugaadathon –in 2014 and gained tremendous insights on what it means to crowdsource solutions for healthcare.

Some of our key learnings from the first hackathon:

  • Literally anyone can innovate for affordable healthcare. We had first year arts students who came up with amazing solutions to solve problems associated with training frontline health workers in rural India.
  • All that matters is passion – the rest is hard work! Get the right team in place, and you see rapid progress unfolding.
  • Positive mindshare is critical to ensure we get the crowd to come in and collaborate with us.

We decided to leverage these learnings and amplify our second hackathon this year by sponsoring three of our own challenges:

  • Develop a solution to ensure predictable supply of medical gases such as oxygen and nitrous oxide in low resource hospital environments. This solution should be tailored for hospitals in rural Africa, ASEAN and South Asia to aid in safe surgeries for maternal and infant care.
  • Develop a solution for a digital knowledge-based system complementing a tele-consulting module to address the shortage of trained doctors and allied health professionals to deliver maternal and infant care in rural areas.
  • Develop a dashboard to track the efficiency of healthcare delivery models for maternal and infant care in rural areas. Identify successful and problematic areas based on clinical, operational and financial metrics of these models.

The results were simply amazing. This year saw increased participation from all quarters, compared to 2014:

•       2x the number of clinicians
•       Strong engagement from government bodies
•       5x the number of funding agencies/investors
•       2.5x the total number of participants
•       3x the number of GE participants
•       ~40% repeat participants (from 2014)

team discussion

My personal takeaways from the event:

  • GE clearly is at the forefront of med-tech innovation and championing this cause puts it left, right and center of the start-up community that we need to leverage
  • This is the front-end of the innovation continuum – clearly an area where small investments go a long way in building a sustainable platform for innovation for affordable care
  • Co-creation is alive & kicking – patients, clinicians and the government see clear value in participating in this ecosystem
  • Nurturing this crowdsourcing open innovation platform will help us accelerate solutions for affordable care in a “frugal, fail fast, validate early” paradigm

Having said that, our purpose behind championing open and crowd-sourced innovation in the area of medical technologies is multi-fold:

  • Create awareness, enthusiasm and excitement to be part of and contribute to med-tech innovation
  • Create the social infrastructure required for collaboration among patients, clinicians, government agencies, NGOs, VCs and the industry to accelerate med-tech innovation and
  • Continue to build and brand GE’s leadership in nurturing the med-tech innovation ecosystem

And this, we hope will be another cog in the wheel to accelerate our journey towards disrupting healthcare innovation where it matters most.



  1. Berdj J. Rassam

    Whatever ideas one can come up with to help in the medical care field, the better.

  2. S. Sarcar

    Nice, crisp article. Great to see MNCs invest in non traditional avenues of innovation.