Open Matters

Who Knows That Healthcare Can Be So Complicated? This Sloan Instructor Does!

Sangath health workers in Goa log patient data. (Courtesy of Frederick Noronha and Sangath on Flickr. License: CC BY-NC.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Healthcare can be mind-boggling in its complexity, but diagnosing and treating patients has become routine business in counties like the US. You feel bad, call up, and go to see someone, and they give you advice and a therapeutic regimen to follow. Unless you’re part of an unlucky minority lacking health insurance, it’s pretty simple from the viewpoint of a patient.

But it’s hardly simple in much of the developing world, where communications are spotty, transport is unreliable, facilities are sparse, appropriate interventions are in short supply, and, perhaps most crucially, trained healthcare providers are relatively few and face overwhelming demand on a daily basis.

Non-governmental organizations—commonly called nonprofits in the US—have stepped in heroically to try to improve this situation and give ordinary people living in impoverished conditions a chance at a healthy life. But these heroes can themselves be overwhelmed. Far too often, they have little opportunity or resources to find, let alone implement, innovations in how healthcare is delivered.

So, you smart MIT Sloan graduate students, what advice can you come up with to help a mission-driven NGO innovate in delivering quality healthcare to those who most need it? To add to the challenge, the focus is on mental health and developmental disabilities—areas where problems are rarely solved with a single treatment.

By the way, you don’t have three years to study and develop your ideas. You have three days.

Ready, set, go!

Working Remotely with an NGO

Such is the academic challenge of 15.ES718 Global Health Innovation: Delivering Targeted Advice to an Organization in the Field.

The course—an intensive workshop, really—is taught by Dr. Anjali Sastry, and the site just published on OCW reflects the 2015 iteration of her teaching. In this instance, the class connected with Sangath, an inspiring NGO that provides mental health services to poor people in India.

The workshop represents a logistical tour de force. Just identifying a partner organization to collaborate with the class, writing a proposal that must convince the NGO’s board, defining researchable topics, and lining up people willing to make themselves available at short notice for the class, is a huge task. But Dr. Sastry has been at this sort of thing for quite a while, and she can be very convincing.

Priming Students to Produce Meaningful Ideas

An introduction to global health issues and to the selected organization sets the stage. After learning about the staff team they will work with, the students explore an array of readings, form groups to tackle specific areas proposed by the partner, and pinpoint key topics. By the day’s end, they have formulated meaningful questions to put to NGO staff in their initial conversations.

To expand their thinking, students select from a roster of expert researchers, entrepreneurs, and clinicians whose work may be relevant to their projects, visiting some in their labs and offices across the MIT campus and elsewhere and calling others to glean their ideas and learn of their innovations.

Drawing on this high-speed networking and their own creativity, the students develop a presentation for the NGO panelists, who weigh this advice and provide feedback based on their very practical experience. Then the students refine their presentations once more and share them with the class. Throughout it all, Dr. Sastry is there, serving as a sounding board and advisor, helping the students shape their work into something valuable.

Representing Process with Resources Galore

This intense process is represented on the OCW course site in multiple ways: class activities, readings and materials (including extensive resources on the Indian healthcare system and healthcare delivery, the status and needs of the Indian population, and Sangath itself), lecture notes, and more. Perhaps most important are the Instructor Insights of Dr. Sastry, which cover learning goals, selecting a partner organization, logistical challenges, motivating students, and providing students with useful feedback so the ideas they develop are actually useful. In keeping with another thread of her work on learning from small failures, Dr. Sastry also shares her reflections on what worked—and what she’d do differently.

If it seems amazing that an instructor can undertake a course like this, further amazement awaits on OCW’s other Anjali Sastry course sites: 15.232 Business Model Innovation: Global Health in Frontier Markets and 15.S07 Global Health Lab.