Originally published in the June 10, 2013 issue of India Today, the following two pieces by Kunal Pradhan feature Kanav Kahol, Research Collaborator in the Center for Sustainable Health
Sitting in his state-of-the-art Human Machine Symbiosis Laboratory at Arizona State University, US, Kanav Kahol, a computer science PhD well before he turned 30, had everything a researcher could dream of. A $4.2 million grant, his name appearing in top academic journals, Nobel laureate Lee Hartwell as a colleague, and a future in which the sky was the limit. But something would keep troubling him. Late in the night when he would lean back to enjoy the fruits of his labour, the desire to do something 'real' back home in Delhi, where he had gone to school, and Ludhiana, where he had gone to engineering college, would keep coming back to haunt him. Finally, in July 2011, Kahol packed up his American Dream and returned home in an attempt to chart a different path, to make a tangible difference, and perhaps to sleep better.
In a modern India shrouded by corruption, nepotism and false icons, ranging from politics to business to cinema to cricket, Kahol is among a small group of people striving for change in spite of everything. He invented Swasthya Slate, a device that aims to provide affordable healthcare to rural India. Like other game-changers, whose ideas we celebrate in this issue of India Today, he enables us to not give up hope. Together they impact all kinds of people-street children who don't have access to education, labourers who are being pushed below the poverty line by mounting medical bills, entrepreneurs who are walking out of colleges without funds to promote big ideas, and self-respecting senior citizens who are fighting to remain independent in a society that wants to label them as needy and over the hill. They are sprinkled across the length and breadth of India, working in fields as diverse as renewable energy and information accessibility, driving agendas as distinct as the cry for government accountability and the thrust for sporting excellence.
These are private individuals or small public-service foundations leading a silent revolution, touching only those on whom they have a direct impact. But when you join the dots, the tiny blips on the radar connect to form an ever-expanding network in which newer blips are being added every day. When seen panoramically, they come together to create a web of ideas that challenges the notion of centralised reform as the only way forward for a country as large as ours.
These include Hole-in-the-Wall, a mobile classroom that makes learning fun; Hackathons that aim to simplify complex data and processes; Janaagraha, which strives to increase citizen participation in urban local government; the Tata Memorial Centre's biobank, which stores live-saving tissues that salvage limbs, offers quick rehabilitation and helps avoid second surgeries; and sports management cells such as Lakshya, inspired by Olympic Gold Quest and Mittal Champions Trust, that create world-class athletes by finding sponsors, coaches, and organising travel as well as training.
A common thread connecting all 10 game-changers is that they start by dreaming big. The tiny first steps they take to set off on their journeys are, for them, the beginning of a revolution. They do not aim to rehabilitate 10 people or educate 50 children or save the lives of a few hundred cancer patients or promote renewable energy in a row of houses in Gujarat or Tamil Nadu. Their ultimate objective is widespread transformation.
Most of these game-changers are still only starting out. Some of their dreams will start seeming unrealistic with the passage of time. As the ideas get more attention, there will be government interference and political roadblocks. Big businesses in their respective domains will want to buy them out in order to protect their own monopoly. "Our challenges are huge," says Swati Ramanathan of the Janaagraha movement which aims to make citizens active stakeholders in urban local government. "There is not a moment to waste."
Judge these endeavours not only by what they have achieved so far, or how they will eventually fare, but by who all they will inspire. Each game-changing idea, while having a clearly defined objective, is also the means to an end. These are the incubators which will inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to think out of the box, to combine public good with business acumen, to get out of the rat race and discover a track that leads to a different finish line altogether.
With accessible and affordable healthcare in villages and small towns being one of India's biggest healthcare challenges, the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) has come up with a unique device that might finally offer a solution.
Swasthya Slate is a Bluetooth-enabled kit that performs nine basic health checks-body temperature, blood pressure, blood sugar, blood haemoglobin, heart rate, water purity, electrocardiogram, urine protein test and urine sugar test-in a matter of minutes at a cost of just Rs 78. Operated by frontline healthcare workers-belonging to ASHA (Accredited Social Healthcare Activists) or the government-appointed auxiliary nurse midwives (SNMS)-the device is paired with an Android phone or tablet. Through a number of applications, it is able to record a patient's medical history, basic medical indicators, and offer diagnosis on the basis of information collected. These readings and recommendations are transmitted in real-time to a central cloud database that arranges for medical help or suggests basic treatment in non-emergency cases.
Being considered for all-India deployment by the National Rural Health Mission, the kit costs Rs 25,000 (minus the tablet) and will be available for approximately Rs 15,000 once it is mass-produced. The device's soon-to-be- launched second generation will add 25 new tests, including those for malaria, typhoid, and the remote analysis of medical slides with the help of a camera fitted into the eyepiece of a portable microscope.
This is a rapidly self-innovating device that learns from data analytics and adapts accordingly. The idea is to make doctors the co-designers of technology for best results," says Kanav Kahol, founder, Swasthya Slate.
There are 80 units being tested across the country, which will be bumped up to 5,000 by August, and PHFI's target is to have 250,000 units deployed by 2016. Of the Rs 78 cost for the primary group of tests, Rs 50 is the cost of materials used-such as sampling strips and disposable needles. The remaining amount of Rs 28 goes to the healthcare worker administering the tests, giving them a monetary incentive as well.
"Swasthya Slate shows how we are not only identifying problem areas but also offering solutions. It can change India's healthcare landscape forever," says Dr K. Srinath Reddy, the president of PHFI and World Heart Foundation.
Kanav Kahol (33), Project head, Swasthya Slate – The Delhi boy was a successful computer science researcher in the US when the public healthcare bug first bit him. After moving back to India in 2011, he would go to the Delhi interstate bus terminal and randomly take a bus to any primary healthcare center within a 200 km radius. "In India, the science stream gets bifurcated into engineering and medicine after Class X," he says."I thought, why not create technology that combines the two streams and brings basic healthcare to those who need it first in rural India?" Over time, he believes the device will be aspirational for the urban households as well.