When you're sick, you see the doctor. When you get a medical test it goes to the lab. When you need medicine, you go to the pharmacy. Or not.
In many places in both the developing and developed world, these basic healthcare steps -- getting from point A to point B -- often don't work. And all the healthcare overhaul in the world is not going to matter much if patients can't connect with the services and products they need to stay healthy.
"We have developed the most miraculous tools for dealing with the health of humankind," according to Nils Daulaire, director of the Office of Global Health Affairs for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "But the best tools in the world don't make a bit of difference if they don't get out to where they're needed."
Fortunately, some of the most innovative ideas now emerging are tackling these very basic problems. In southern Africa, for example, Riders for Health is addressing what it calls "the tyranny of distance," by putting healthcare workers -- more than 300 of them -- on dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles in seven countries so they can navigate Africa's remote and rugged roads, travel further, reach more isolated villages, and spend longer with their communities. Riders for Health also ensures timely delivery of diagnostic samples and test results for patients with HIV, TB, and other diseases that require close monitoring and treatment.
It's an intrepid approach, but vehicle breakdowns commonly shut down delivery of healthcare services, so Riders for Health provides critical training in maintenance. "We make sure that the vehicles are managed and keep running on a predictable, reliable, and cost effective basis so that people in rural communities don't die of easily preventable and curable diseases simply because they can't be reached," said co-founder Andrea Coleman.
She knows that the most effective solutions can be the simplest ones, but it takes an eye for innovation to see how to make this work. "It's certainly not rocket science," Coleman said. "It's just putting in an appropriate infrastructure where there is no transportation infrastructure."
In India, E HealthPoint is also tackling the problem of reaching remote communities that have no local doctors, applying a low-tech/high-tech approach. Small clinics are set up with a simple water filtration system to provide a clean water supply that draws a lot of foot traffic.
While there, villagers can sit down at a computer and be connected via videoconference with a doctor. Diagnosis can be done promptly and prescriptions can be filled onsite by a staff pharmacist.
"Because people come to pick up their water daily, the E Health Point has multiple opportunities to raise awareness about health issues and encourage early treatment of medical conditions," said CEO Amit Jain. "Tying healthcare delivery to water services also provides social cover for patients with socially-taboo conditions, such as tuberculosis or HIV."
In a world where corporations have the clout and money to deliver their profitable commercial products to just about every nook and cranny of the planet, it is clearly possible to also get medical care anywhere it is needed, even though that doesn't always happen. That incongruity gave innovator Simon Berry the idea for ColaLife -- an organization that aims to piggyback on the robust global distribution networks of the Coca Cola company to deliver medicines such as rehydration salts, zinc supplements, and malaria pills.
ColaLife's "AidPods" are packages for medicines that fit neatly into the unused space between soda bottles in packing crates, and can go anywhere that Coke goes-which is pretty much everywhere. "Coca Cola gets to these places because people want Coca Cola," Berry said. "The brand pulls the product into these really remote areas.
"Wouldn't it be absolutely fabulous if we could get that same pull for basic medicines?" The most economically feasible way to get medicines to poor, remote locations is to partner with existing profit makers, Berry argues.
Though piggybacking life saving devices on a product that's not known for it's healthfulness is controversial in some circles, many innovators in development work believe there's a lot to emulate in Coke's success.
"I feel that, if we can understand what makes something like Coca-Cola ubiquitous, we can apply those lessons then for the public good," explained Melinda French Gates, co-chair and trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in a TED presentation last year. She pointed to the company's unparalleled marketing, exacting market data analysis, and embrace of local entrepreneurs to carry Coke to the most remote locations -- a feature that inspired ColaLife, too.
"Coke's success is relevant," said Gates, "because if we can analyze it, learn from it, then we can save lives." Many of today's healthcare distribution innovators agree -- and are applying market-based strategies to their work delivering health and prevention products and services.
Many such creative solutions for solving the significant distribution problems for health care have surfaced in a global competition titled Making More Health: Achieving Individual, Family and Community Well-Being, run by Ashoka Changemakers in partnership with Boehringer Ingelheim. Thirteen finalists are competing for three $10,000 prizes, and voting is open to anyone.
If you want to be part of extending heath care to more people around the world, you can take action by voting for your favorite innovation and helping them win money to scale-up and expand their innovations.
Vote to make more health, from now until November 30. Be a changemaker!
Follow Alison Craiglow Hockenberry on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@changemakers