Really, who wouldn’t want a real-life tricorder? In the original Star Trek series, there were three variations of the device – one for engineering, one for scanning the environment, and a medical tricorder with a detachable diagnostic salt shaker (honestly, it was a salt shaker). Today, sensors, computing power, telephone and WiFi connectivity, and cloud data storage make most of the functionality of all three devices pretty do-able. In fact, Qualcomm is offering a $10 million XPRIZE for whoever comes closest to developing a health tricorder. Over 300 teams from 32 countries have been narrowed down to 7 teams, and the winner will be announced early next year.
A real-life tricorder is only one of many new devices featured on tech gadget blogs. Wearable bracelets and digital pacifiers for babies, DFID drug authentication, “smart pills” that transmit vital signs and drug efficacy data, a mobile app that lets you cough into a smartphone to identify asthma, pneumonia, croup, or other diseases with 97% accuracy – these cutting-edge tech solutions could have a great impact on point-of-care practice, home care, health supply chains, and other areas where the development community is active. But how can development organizations get out in front of these technological innovations? How do they decide which product or service to build into their programs when their tech expertise is limited, and the environment changes so fast that today’s innovation is tomorrow’s pile of dusty equipment?
The current rate of innovation and the potential impact on health systems demand that development organizations build up their technological expertise, either through hiring or partnership. This will be necessary to judge grants, guide grantees, and realize the benefits (and avoid the risks) of backing bold new technologies. As ICT innovation speeds up and technology becomes more integral to programs in many sectors, new skills and review processes will be required for both funders and implementers. They will need to introduce, refine, and scale tech solutions, identify usability problems, and address systems architecture, standards, and interoperability issues. Many of these skills have little to do with the tech itself; change management, business development, and political savvy can all be required to guide the introduction and operationalization of new devices and processes. Nothing is sadder than watching the wheels come off an ambitious tech project. Greater awareness, new processes and skill sets, and systems thinking are the best way to avoid trouble – at least until a transporter is invented.