The Challenges and Opportunities of Global Health

The Challenges and Opportunities of Global Health 150 150 IEEE Pulse
Author(s): Mike Hess

Few themes in health care require the breadth of innovation as closing disparities found in low resource settings. Defining an unmet need for regions and populations who have been deprived of care found elsewhere, and then formulating a solution calls for openmindeness and a broad skill set. The vectors of innovation may range from new technical solutions to changing the care pathway, or novel means of paying for health care.

Appropriately for such a complex issue there are many parallel efforts focused on reducing the disparities in care. The efforts are as varied as the participants—novel distribution of proven antibiotics and vaccines, and developing a new medical device would both fall under the umbrella. Participants include governments and governmental agencies, nonprofits, academic centers and corporations. It is the latter two where biomedical engineering (BME) may have its greatest impact on the challenges facing global health.

Throwing technology at these problems is no panacea. Low resource regions are littered with failed experiments or business ventures that attempted to help solve these problems. For example, when faced with a disparity of access to technology [1], sending older-generation equipment to hospitals in the region sounds like a philanthropic win. However maintenance, parts and service are often not available, and the equipment is consigned to the room or hallway with other nonfunctional machines [2]. It may be that a novel device designed for that market is what it will take to move the needle on standard of care.

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Given the challenge, what makes biomedical engineers perfect to tackle such a complicated topic? For one, BME is truly an integrative discipline. Starting with unmet needs, constraints and requirements, a BME will set out to craft a solution not limited by any particular technical discipline. Ultimately, a team of biomedical engineers should prefer the best option, be it a battery-powered Wi-Fi-enabled smart device or a simple mechanical tool, so long as it solves the problem. This agnostic approach leads to more creativity and wider possible solution set.

Biomedical engineers also often cite the varied coursework that can make their education less marketable to some employers [3]—but it is this same broad-based education that empowers a biomedical engineer to tackle such complex problems.

In this issue of Pulse, we will highlight some of the challenges, opportunities, and examples of technology-focused global health innovation where BME plays a key role, including the role of training and immersive experiences. The goals are ambitious, the work is impressive, and at the end of the day these articles perfectly underscore why so many of us have made this our chosen profession. I hope you find them as inspiring as I do, and it sparks an idea where you yourself might play a role or expand what you already do to advance global health innovation.


  1. T. Maboreke, J. Banhwa, and R. D. Pitcher, “An audit of licensed zimbabwean radiology equipment resources as a measure of healthcare access and equity,” Pan Afr. Med. J., vol. 34, Oct. 2019, doi: 10.11604/pamj.2019.34.60.18935.
  2. N. Bhadelia, “Rage against the busted medical machines,” NPR News, Sep. 2016.
  3. J. Berglund, “The real world: BME graduates reflect on whether universities are providing adequate preparation for a career in industry,” IEEE Pulse, vol. 6, no. 2, pp. 46–49, Mar./Apr. 2015, doi: 10.1109/MPUL.2014.2386631.