Innovation for global health: tackling chronic diseases

Elderly man smiling.
Affordable, sustainable, and high-quality technological innovations are emerging in low- and middle-income countries, which may lead the world in cost-effectively addressing the prevention and control of chronic diseases.

Personalized technology and behavioral economics to advance health

Chronic diseases—diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and various cancers—threaten the stability of societies worldwide. They account for 38 million deaths annually, with 28 million occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

Tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, poor mental health, and nonadherence to prescribed medications contribute to chronic diseases but are areas that have not benefited from advances in innovation.

Personalized health technologies activate users, measure steps and sleep, support better medication adherence, guide healthy food choices, and quantify biological measures that are predictive of chronic diseases. A Technology Catalysts Map developed by the Vitality Institute and the Institute for the Future outlines emerging innovations and their potential for impact on chronic diseases and related risks.

Wearables, adhesives, and ingestible sensors are already encouraging healthy behavior change. Inexpensive stick-on sensors help to manage risks by providing personalized feedback through aggregating and analyzing health data. Artificial intelligence-based coaches incorporate advice and encouragement to promote healthy activities.

In the future, eye tracking and brain games will facilitate better understanding and management of stress and sleep levels. Miniature sensors will track physiological functions and environmental changes. Sensors that detect gestures, assess body functions, and track facial movements will be embedded in individualized devices and physical spaces.

A variety of stakeholders—entrepreneurs and policymakers, researchers and health providers, large and small employers and their communities—are pioneering investment in new technologies to catalyze better health and well-being. Affordable, sustainable, and high-quality technological innovations are emerging in low- and middle-income countries, which may lead the world in cost-effectively addressing the prevention and control of chronic diseases.

Mobile money transfers through M-Pesa in Kenya, electrocardiogram machines by General Electric in China and India, and intuitive point-of-care diagnostic devices by PATH are transformative examples with immediate applications to chronic diseases. The lack of legacy infrastructure, regulations, and mindsets that impede progress in high-income countries could spur advancement in low- and middle-income countries.

Combining personalized health technology with behavioral economics has emerged as a powerful mechanism to encourage sustained uptake of and engagement with technology. This combination holds potential for promoting health and preventing chronic diseases more effectively to yield reductions in health care costs over the long term.

Five future forces working to align private and social stakeholders

  1. Connected science: Stakeholders contribute data and connections to the art and science of health promotion and chronic disease prevention.
  2. Rise of networks: Bottom-up solutions address health promotion and disease prevention.
  3. Quantified generations: Data-driven self-knowledge ignites intergenerational health engagement and promotion.
  4. New business models: Business and social interests align for upstream interventions.
  5. Entrepreneurial ecosystems: Lean iteration creates vital human and economic systems.

Photo: PATH/Aaron Joel Santos.