The Beauty of Impact: hidden highlights from the World Health Summit 2017, Berlin

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Suchita Shah

Suchita Shah

Suchita is a family doctor, public health consultant and primary care tutor at Oxford University who has an MPH from Harvard and an MPhil in International Relations from Cambridge University. She has a diverse range of interests, including global primary care, health systems, medical education, digital health, and the nexus between health, law, and policy. She has been a physician in the UK National Health Service for many years and also has extensive experience working abroad. She loves travel, literature, writing, and the arts, and contributes regular blogs to the British Medical Journal.

The annual World Health Summit was held in Berlin from 15th – 17th October. With around 2000 participants from across academia, politics, the private sector and civil society, the meeting’s main themes were: health policy in the G7/20, vaccine research, Big Data, global health security, healthy cities, health innovations in Africa, and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

Sometimes, conferences can leave you with platitude-overload, followed by a fumbling quest for substance after the initial magic of rhetoric has vanished. So, on this occasion, I was pleasantly surprised to see time and space allocated to action, as well as talk—and to solutions, as well as problems.

One example is “The Beauty of Impact” panel discussion, which brought together pioneers from across the world who have developed new solutions for major public health challenges. My two favourite innovations addressed the problem of blindness.

Discovering Hands” is an initiative that trains blind and visually impaired women to conduct breast examinations in doctors’ offices. According to its founder, Dr. Frank Hoffman, these women have enhanced tactile abilities; the program builds on this skill with specialist training, in order to improve the quality of the breast exam and thus encourage earlier cancer diagnosis. At the same time, for the blind women themselves, who are routinely excluded from the job market and are often the most marginalised members of society, the initiative has also created opportunities and employability. A partnership between blindness and breast cancer, with women and reciprocity at its core, “Discovering Hands” has been implemented in High and Low-and-Middle Income Countries around the world.

Another way of creating capability out of disability is through technology, and the second innovation relates to online reading. For most people, the digital age has been liberating: think what you can now look up on the Internet, in the blink of an eye, when previously you would have laboriously flipped through a book, page by page.

For blind people, however, technological progress has contributed, somewhat paradoxically, to an increase in illiteracy, with a rate of 90% in the United States. A lack of suitable and inexpensive digital braille reading devices has led to a preference for audio as the primary means of acquiring information, which has impacted on the ability of blind people to read and write. The invention of the BrailleRing may drastically change this. Currently, according to its founding company’s CEO Istvan Deak, flat digital-to-braille reading devices only allow a few words or syllables to be read at a time. Can you imagine enjoying a thriller at that pace?

Turning a line into a circle is the simple genius behind the sophisticated BrailleRing, which transfers Internet text as a flat line onto the inside of a drum. Readers slide their fingers along a line at the bottom of the drum, enabling the ring to rotate, while the text that is not being read is rapidly updated: a curveball, as it were, into the field of literacy.

These and other simple but extraordinary ideas-turned-into-reality, which include a rapid diagnostic test for snakebites, app-designed custom corsets for scoliosis, and a smart memory assistant for dementia sufferers, have been collated and showcased in a book called “The Beauty of Impact.” The book also contains a number of essays on innovation in public health—rightly giving a voice to considered opinion as well as action.

You can watch the panel discussion here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s5gLi2MXdQ and read more about the World Health Summit here: https://www.worldhealthsummit.org/