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Crowdfunding for Health Care in Poor Countries

Ed note. This post, from  Italian journalist Federico Guerrini, appears in Tech President. 

In 2012, Bageshwori, a 12-year-old girl from Nepal was suffering from rheumatic heart disease, a condition that prevents blood from essentially moving through the heart, causing constant fatigue, shortness of breath, congestive heart failure, and even death. She needed heart surgery to replace her mitral valve. The surgery wouldn’t be difficult — rheumatic heart disease is usually easy to cure –- but her family, who lives in a region where the average per capita income is $1 per day, simply couldn’t afford the $1,125 treatment.

Yet, on June 21, 2012, she received the operation. The money for the surgery came from an online crowdfunding platform called Watsi.

Watsi was founded by Chase Adam, a former Peace Corps volunteer. In 2010, he was traveling on a bus in the Talamanca Indigenous territory of Costa Rica when a woman boarded the bus and asked the passengers for donations to pay for her son’s medical treatment. She showed a picture of a young boy with an incision across the span of his stomach. “In that moment I had what can only be described as an epiphany,” Adam explains on the Watsi website. “If I could somehow connect this woman with my friends and family back home, she would have the money to pay for her son’s medical treatment within the day.”

This experience led to the birth of Watsi, named after the town Chase was traveling through at the time.

How it Works

“We’re a bit of a Kickstarter for healthcare,” Watsi’s marketing manager Grace Garey tells techPresident. “With the difference that there’s no concept like on Kickstarter or on some of these other websites of a project expiring. If a project doesn’t reach its goal after a certain number of days or a certain amount of time, it’s not pulled down until it’s fully funded.”

A “project” in this case corresponds to a patient whose story is uploaded online, together with a picture, to explain why a patient needs treatment and how much it will cost. The actual procedure is performed by Watsi’s partners, 15 well respected medical organizations operating in some of the world’s poorest regions — from Africa to Guatemala, Cambodia or the Philippines. For immediate need or emergency cases, Watsi’s providers conduct the operation first for the selected patients and receive payment once the funding comes in.

Treatments generally have a high likelihood of success, must be under $1,500 and do not involve multiple operations or long-term care. If a patient passes away before receiving a treatment funded by Watsi, donors will either be refunded or given the option to reallocate their donation. If a patient passes away after receiving a treatment, supporters will receive an explanation as to what happened.

Bageshwori was the first patient to be funded by Watsi. “After less than two years,” says Garey, “Close to 1,500 individual patients have been funded on the platform and almost $3 million has been raised for patients. Half of the donations come from regular small donors and then the other from corporate partnerships. Big companies will do fundraisers where they raise money for Watsi patients and we collect that money and then distribute it.”

All money collected from donors go towards patients’ treatments; Watsi does not apply a fee for their services and sustains itself through other means. “Right now we’re founded mainly in two ways. One which we call the “philantrophic round” — a bunch of people in the technology community that chose to support us.” The startup raised $1.2 million from Tencent, Paul Graham, Ron Conway, Vinod Khosla and other investors. “We’re also experimenting with other things,” says Garey, “asking givers to give something extra to support our costs, when they make the donation, and licensing our technology to other companies.”

Kangu is another nonprofit that is also crowdsourcing healthcare and it was founded in 2012 by former Kiva staff member Casey Santiago, in an effort to provide safe births to mothers who live in regions of the world with the highest maternal mortality rates, including areas of Uganda, Nepal, Burundi and India. “I’m a mom of two.” Santiago tells techPresident. “After having my kids, I could not shake the thought that if I had been born in another country, Uganda for example, I would have had a 1 in 46 chance of not surviving a pregnancy. This, to me, is totally unacceptable.”

In Uganda, only 47% of women receive prenatal care and only 42% of births are attended by skilled health personnel. Pregnant women and their newborn babies are also particularly susceptible to complications related to malaria, which is endemic in the country.

That’s why people like Grace, a 27-year-old widow whose husband was killed in a motor accident when she was three months pregnant or Betty, a 20-year-old in her first pregnancy, rely on the services provided by Kangu’s medical partners, which is in this case the Teso Safe Motherhood Project.

The way Kangu operates is very similar to Watsi. A picture of the pregnant woman is posted online, together with a short introduction. Donors contribute online by giving $10 or more, and will receive updates on the mother and baby they have supported, as well as have the opportunity to connect with others who have donated to the same patient.

Roughly $200 per woman covers prenatal care, delivery with a trained professional, emergency obstetric care if needed, postnatal care, medications (like for malaria, HIV/AIDS, and infections), and newborn immunizations.The number of patients funded at any given time through the platform is variable, as there is an ebb and flow to the births based on agriculture and holidays. As a result, there are some months that are significantly busier than others. “Taking as an example our medical partner in northern Uganda, they average about 100 deliveries per month, and in 2013 had 1,136 deliveries with no deaths,” says Santiago.

Ethical Considerations

But what if despite the care, a mother does dies — what happens? Santiago says, “To date, all the mothers funded on Kangu have survived. We have not yet experienced a maternal death. If we lose a patient in the future, we are committed to openly communicating to her funders what happened and what services she received. We believe that it is in no ones interest to hide the real danger that exists in being pregnant in a developing country.”

And what about privacy? Are mothers happy to have their story published online, for everyone to see, or do they feel obligated to do so to receive funding? “All patients are aware of and consent to their photo and story being on the Kangu website. To further protect patient privacy, we only use first names.”

The same is true for Watsi. Every patient signs a waiver to allow the publication of his or her online profile; if he or she doesn’t wish to be featured on the website, the treatment could still be funded through the so-called Universal Fund.

The idea of having Kickstarters for healthcare, however well intended, also raises a number of other ethical issues.

Fred Trotter, crowdfunding expert and author of Hacking Healthcare (a book about the difficult relationship between IT and healthcare, in the USA and in general), tells techPresident, “Online crowdfunding for healthcare — it’s a wonderful idea that demands careful execution. The technical details matter tremendously here. There is a reason that Kickstarter specifically excluded this type of crowdfunding from the site. There are really complex implications for doing medical crowdfunding that they did not want to take on.”

One issue is ensuring against fraudulent cases and ensuring that the treatment the patient is seeking is actually the one he or she needs. Trotter explains, “For instance, let’s say a patient decides to crowdfund Chelation therapy to remove ‘toxins’ that are causing their migraines. That is a dangerous misuse of Chelation therapy, which does help in cases of severe heavy metal poisoning. How does the platform respond? If it does the crowdfund, it is endorsing quackery, if it does not, then it is now in the business of evaluating treatments.”

Trotter further explains, “What happens when the first patient tries to crowdfund a trip to Tahiti for aromatherapy and ‘touch therapy’ to heal their ‘stress’? That’s basically just a vacation, and I could definitely use that kind of ‘therapy’ myself. Or, how do you handle malingering? What happens when the first healthy person makes the decision to crowdfund for cancer treatment when they do not have cancer? Current crowdfunding platforms basically take a ‘buyer beware approach’ to fraud detection and other issues like this. Its not clear that this works for a healthcare crowdfunding platform.”

The most glaring one is the idea of allowing the crowd to decide who receives treatment or who does not, or in some cases, who dies and who lives.

For instance, how does an organization like Watsi or Kangu prevent the crowd from playing favorites — a patient with a particularly well presented profile — or from discriminating based on a variety of factors like age, race, or gender?

“That just doesn’t happen on Watsi at all because we believe basically that it shouldn’t be a popularity contest and donors shouldn’t be making medical decisions,” says Garey. “We have many donors who email us and tell us, ‘Oh, well, I donated to the motorcycle driver in his 60s because I was afraid that no one else would want to donate to him — they would want to donate to the really cute kids instead.’”

Long-Term Impact

Another issue is the larger scale impact of such projects on the healthcare ecosystem within a country. Komal Garewal, an independent crowdfunding consultant and a blogger for HealthIT Consultant who works for organizations like Healthfundr, tells techPresident, “Crowdfunding is a wonderful tool when raising funds for an immediate need, like disaster relief, but crowdfunding projects that take the place of NGOs, or even funding short term projects led by NGOs, always pose the threat of disrupting a system. The issue with many of these ‘do-good’ projects is that they often disrupt socioeconomic and cultural norms, after which populations end up in a place that may be worse than where they started.” According to this school of thought the problem is that while helping in the short term, in the long run these projects could weaken rather than empower those societies that receive such aid.

“Projects like these often disrupt local markets by not only introducing competition,” says Garey. “But by also introducing a product standard that may not be locally achievable or sustainable. A widely cited example is the TOMS business model of donating a free pair of shoes to an “impoverished population” for each pair bought. Another is the effect of foreign aid after the Haitian earthquake on local farmers.” The influx of foreign food aid meant that many Haitians could get rice for free. As a result, the price of rice in Haiti plummeted, and farmer’s gains collapsed.

Also, a possible downside of these humanitarian efforts is to undermine the creation of a more efficient and comprehensive healthcare system in the country they operate; as governments, for lack of resources or of will, could be more than happy to outsource the care of their citizens.

“That’s something we really think about,” says Garewal. “One way to avoid this is that we only work with partner hospitals and organizations that have included some concept of public private partnership into their doings. Many of our hospitals are partially funded by the government. Another way to look at it, is that simply by virtue of funding an individual patient at a hospital, you’re really doing a lot more than that. You’re sustaining the core service and the core product that the hospital is providing: the surgeon’s time, the supplies needed, the basic infrastructure. And you’re also diverting the funding away that these hospitals and these governments are using to try and cover the cost of people who can’t pay, which they’re just hemorrhaging money trying to do this right now.”

Santiago says that achieving universal healthcare, however, requires a number of variables: “Universal health coverage can only be achieved within the context of a mixed healthcare system, made up of various service delivery and financing models. Crowdfunding is an additional source of funding that helps private providers recover their costs, enhance service provision and expand their reach.”

Federico Guerrini is an Italian journalist. He covers technology for a variety of publications including ZDnet, La Stampa,, l’Espresso, and il Corriere della Sera, among others. He blogs at and tweets as @fede_guerrini

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Top of the Morning: Boko Haram Strikes Again

Top stories from DAWNS Digest

Boko Haram Strikes Again…
Two days after an attack on a bus depot in Abuja, the Nigerian terror group has kidnapped more than 100 girls from a secondary school in Borno state. The attack took place in northeast Nigeria, the site of a great deal of violence by Boko Haram, including previous attacks on schools. Where are the students?  It would appear the government does not know. The attackers fled in trucks. Luckily, many girls were able to escape when one of the trucks broke down. The fallout? The government looks very bad right now. They claimed that Boko Haram was on the run, but attacks in recent days have proved otherwise. Deeper Dive AFP

Alarming News of the Day: Up to 1,000 refugees from war-torn South Sudan are fleeing to Ethiopiaeach day, many of them on the brink of death, the UN said. (AFP

Hopeful News of the Day: India’s Supreme Court has granted legal recognition to transgender people, recognizing them as a third gender deserving of equal rights. (AFP

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Towards a “Grand Convergence” in Global Health

Ed note.  This op-ed from Gavin Yamey, professor in the Global Health Group at the University of California, San Francisco and leader of the Evidence to Policy Initiative; and Helen Saxenian, senior consultant at the Results for Development Institute, Washington, DC is reprinted with permission from Project Syndicate. 

SAN FRANCISCO – The world is at a unique historical inflection point. By making today’s medicines, vaccines, and other health tools universally available – and by stepping up research efforts to develop tomorrow’s health tools – we could close the health gap between wealthy and poor countries within a generation. By 2035, we could achieve a “grand convergence” in global health, reducing preventable maternal and child deaths, including those caused by infectious diseases, to unprecedentedly low levels worldwide. What it will take is a coordinated, future-oriented investment strategy.

A group of 25 global health and economics experts (including us) recently came together to develop such a strategy. In a year-long process, the group identified the tools, systems, and financing that would be needed to achieve global health convergence, and produced Global Health 2035 – an ambitious investment blueprint that would save millions of lives and bolster human welfare, productivity, and economic growth.

With aggressively scaled-up health investments, ten million lives could be saved annually, beginning in 2035. And the economic payoff would be enormous: every dollar invested in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) to achieve this grand convergence would return $9-20.

Success will require a global commitment to ensuring that everyone can access today’s powerful health technologies and services, like childhood vaccines, treatment for HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, and prenatal care for pregnant women. It will also require increased funding for the development and delivery of new health tools to redress the conditions that disproportionately kill women and children in LMICs.

To this end, one of the central features of the convergence strategy is family planning. As it stands, more than 220 million women worldwide lack access to modern contraception – an inexcusable situation, given that scaling up family planning would be remarkably simple and inexpensive. And the benefits would be vast.

For starters, improved access to contraception would prevent an estimated one-third of all maternal deaths, and would have a particularly large impact among those facing the highest risk. These include 15-19-year-old women in poor countries, who currently have the least access to contraception, and women who have multiple pregnancies in quick succession, by allowing them to space out their pregnancies. By reducing the rate of unwanted pregnancies, family planning also decreases the number of deaths from unsafe abortions.

This is not only good for mothers. Reducing high-risk pregnancies, curbing unwanted pregnancies, and spacing out births have been shown to decrease newborn and child death rates. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that fully meeting women’s need for contraception would prevent 600,000 newborn deaths and 500,000 child deaths annually.

Moreover, cutting birth rates, which are very high in many LMICs, would help to reduce the strain on these countries’ health-care systems by diminishing the costs of maternal and newborn care and immunization. At the same time, it would facilitate social change that fuels increased productivity and output. According to a study coordinated by the World Health Organization, the economic return from scaling up contraception in 27 countries with very high birth rates, such as Afghanistan and Chad, would exceed 8% of GDP from now until 2035.

So, how much would it cost to ensure universal access to modern medicine and health services? Global Health 2035 puts the total at an additional $70 billion dollars annually, with $1 billion of this increase allocated to family planning alone.

But most of the costs can ultimately be covered by LMICs themselves. In fact, the total bill for global health convergence amounts to less than 1% of the additional GDP that these countries are expected to generate in the next two decades. In other words, public investment of less than 1% of GDP could avert a massive ten million deaths each year.

Innovative partnerships aimed at reducing costs can diminish this burden even more. A group of donor governments, foundations, the United Nations, and private-sector actors recently came together to reduce the price of a long-lasting contraceptive implant (Levonorgestrel) from $18 to $8.50 per unit in more than 50 LMICs.

The international community must play a major role in achieving convergence. Specifically, it must increase investment in research and development for the diseases that affect the poor, like childhood pneumonia and diarrhea, which kill around two million children every year. And direct financial assistance to LMICs – for example, to fund family-planning programs and combat malaria and HIV/AIDS – will be required for years to come.

The opportunity to achieve a grand convergence in global health outcomes is within reach. We need only to convince ourselves to grasp it.

Image credit: Community health workers trained by USAID provide basic health services.USAID/Mali


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Top of the Morning: Terror in Abuja

Top stories from DAWNS Digest

Scores Killed in Abuja Bus station bombing…At least 71 people are dead after a blast struck a busy bus station in Nigeria’s capital. This is the worst attack in Abuja since bombings of two newspaper headquarters in 2012. Part of a Pattern…parts of Nigeria have succom to horrible attacks in recent months by Boko Haram, including the slaughter of dozens of students at a college in February. 1,500 Nigerians have been killed in related violence so far in 2014.  What makes this attack different? For one, it struck the heart of the capitol outside the frontlines of the conflict in Northern Nigeria, demonstrating the reach of Boko Haram. Deeper Dives:  Reuters report on the blast   New Crisis Group report on Boko Haram (Shelby Grossman

Guinea-Bissau election watch: Good news! Election observers from ECOWAS say Guinea-Bissau’s weekend election was free and fair, and called on international donors to restart cooperation suspended in the wake of a 2012 coup. The frontrunner is is Jose Mario Vaz, a former finance minister. No no candidate wins an outright majority, a run-off will be held between the top two. Results are due on Friday. (Reuters


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Ban Ki Moon Calls for More Troops for the Central African Republic

Ban Ki Moon authored a compelling op-ed in the Washington Post today about the situation in the Central African Republic. In short, the Secretary General is urging the international community to send more troops and provide more funding for CAR until the new UN Peacekeeping mission gets off the ground. Here is the meat of it.

The U.N. Security Council has just approved my proposal to deploy 10,000 troops and almost 2,000 police for a new United Nations peacekeeping mission for the Central African Republic .

This is a welcome step — and highly anticipated by all those I met in the country — but the mission will not fully deploy until September, and time is not on the side of the vulnerable.

Until then, support for the AU and French forces is crucial. I have urged the European Union to provide reinforcements — and I am glad troops are moving in. But even more security assistance is needed during this vital intervening period before the peacekeeping mission is fully operational.

Action must come on two other fronts as well.

The transitional government needs immediate help at ground zero of governance, including support for getting police, judges and prison guards back to work. At the same time, the country needs an inclusive political process to find the path to peace.

Accountability for atrocious human rights violations is central. The United Nations has sent a commission of inquiry to help advance the process. Religious leaders are also crucial to advancing dialogue and ensuring that evacuated people can return home.

With the support of the international community, the people of the Central African Republic can build a future of reconciliation and peace.

Ethnic cleansing, mostly committed against Muslim population is continuing a pace. Over 100,000 Muslims have fled Bangui alone–only 20,000 remain today. Whole regions have been emptied of their Muslim populations. And now, there is word that militias are blocking the main roads leading to relative safety in Cameroon, forcing people to cross wilderness–and literally walk across a river — to find refuge. This video, shot on a mobile phone by member of the UN Refugee Agency shows the lengths to which families are going to flee violence.

This is happening now. Countries that can make a difference ought to heed Ban Ki Moon’s call for additional security forces deploy to the region in advance of the peacekeeping mission’s launch in September.  Unless additional security forces are urgently dispatched, the ethnic cleansing of CAR’s Muslims will probably have been completed by the time Blue Helmets an be mustered.


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Is Rwanda Getting More Repressive?

I speak with Jina Moore about the 20th anniversary commemorations of the Rwanda genocide. Moore is a veteran foreign correspondent in Africa and she currently serves as Buzzfeed’s international women’s rights correspondent. We discuss the legacy of the Rwanda genocide 20 years on, how Rwanda’s human rights backslide in recent years is understood at home and abroad, and the current crisis in the Central African Republic, among other things.  Enjoy!

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