February 28, 2015 | ,

5 lessons for achieving impact with global health innovations

Two global health innovators share five top takeaways on what it takes to achieve scale and impact.
Young man receiving a vaccine at the MenAfriVac launch.
To be successful, we need to think about launch and scale-up at every stage of a project. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

What separates impactful global health innovations from the rest? We have spent the better part of our careers thinking about questions just like that. And yet, we have not found a short or simple answer. But, we have uncovered many useful lessons.

Some of these lessons are featured in a new resource we developed together. “IDEA to IMPACT: A Guide to Introduction and Scale of Global Health Innovations” by USAID’s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact (CII), highlights the challenges of achieving scale and impact, and uses case studies to draw out best practices and practical tips.

Drawing from our individual experiences, the guide, and reflections from panelists at a launch event that USAID and PATH co-hosted with The Aspen Institute, we sat down and challenged ourselves to summarize our five top takeaways on what it takes to achieve scale and impact with global health innovations.

Two women in colorful saris stand holding materials.
Health care workers are an integral part to the success of a mother’s group project in India. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

1. Start with the people

This maxim lies at the heart of good product development. It is important to listen to and observe users to better understand their needs. PATH learned this firsthand on our work on various water filtration systems. Everything from preferred color to size of a standard drinking cup needed to be considered for each different context.

woman drinking from a cup of water she poured from a water filter she owns as part of the Safe Water Project.
Observing how people use a product is just as important as surveys and focus groups. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

We’ve also found that while surveys and focus groups are incredibly useful, sometimes user observation is necessary. With our C1 water filter project we handed users a box of parts and didn’t call ourselves successful until they could assemble it without instructions.

A case study from Design that Matters (featured in the guide) also illustrates the importance of incorporating the needs of manufacturers and distributors into product design. It is important to consider all the users—not just end-users—in the ecosystem that will take a solution to impact.

Three vaccine coolers on tables covered with white cloths, white-clad health workers sit behind them.
Health workers in Burkina Faso wait to open their vaccine carriers at the launch of a meningitis A vaccination campaign. PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

2. Plan for impact and scale at every step in the process

Core to IDEA to IMPACT is that launch and scale-up are not things you can start thinking about after you’ve developed a product and completed clinical trials—all aspects of delivery need to be incorporated throughout the project. But how can you keep your eye on this goal the entire time?

The Meningitis Vaccine Project faced this challenge when it embarked on an effort to create an affordable, effective vaccine to protect the more than 400 million people at risk in Africa’s Meningitis Belt. PATH and the World Health Organization (WHO) had to simultaneously focus on developing a scientifically sound vaccine and putting it through rigorous clinical trials and regulatory processes, while at the same time working to improve the ability of countries in the region to conduct studies and prepare to administer the vaccine.

The guide includes practical companion tools for outlining the steps required and how and when to plan for impact and scale. The tools provided can serve as examples and inspiration for global health practitioners to start thinking through delivery considerations early on in the design process.

3. Need is not enough

Just because a product fills a need, or has the potential to save many lives, does not mean people will line up out the door to buy it.

This lesson is highlighted in the guide through a case study of CycleBeads®, a family planning tool created by Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health and Cycle Technologies. Looking at a high unmet need for family planning in Mali and backed by the Ministry of Health, the partners overestimated demand and ended up scaling back. Pilot studies are often useful to test market acceptance and determine demand generation needs.

4. Don’t be afraid to fail (or pivot)

Taking a cue from Silicon Valley, the global health community should not be afraid to fail. The good news is that doesn’t always mean scrapping a project. Often it just takes a “pivot.” For example, Godrej and Boyce’s case study describes how they originally wanted to scale down an existing refrigerator model for lower-income users, but when research made it clear this plan would not work, they shifted their approach and designed a completely new product from the ground up.

5. Don’t forget the regulatory and policy environment

Another vital piece is the policy and regulatory environment in your target market. Of course there will be mandated processes, but don’t forget about other policies needed to support your product. An endorsement from WHO or inclusion in a national policy may be key to unlocking many opportunities for scaling up, as is highlighted in the case study about WHO’s guideline on community use of misoprostol to prevent postpartum hemorrhage.

We use these steps to test, introduce, and scale a product and measure impact, but the good news is they are concrete and achievable. And now you have another great tool to help: the full IDEA to IMPACT guide and companion materials also includes a toolkit.

IDEA to IMPACT: A Guide to Introduction and Scale of Global Health Innovations booklet cover.
Read IDEA to IMPACT: A Guide to Introduction and Scale of Global Health Innovations.

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  • David Milestone is a senior market access advisor at USAID\'s Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact.
  • Steve Brooke is a commercialization advisor with the Devices and Tools Program at PATH.