A Corporate Funder That's Hellbent on Making Surgery Safe in Poor Countries

No matter where in the world it takes place, even minor surgery is a scary situation. Throw in factors like a lack of continuous electricity and shoddy equipment, and the prospect of going under the knife is downright terrifying. Unfortunately, this is often the scenario many surgical patients face in low- and middle-income countries.  

Take sub-Saharan African countries, for example, where some 70 percent of the medical and lab equipment in the entire region fails to work properly, if at all. And that’s to say nothing of the shortage of critical medical practitioners like anesthesiologists and anesthetists. Then there’s the fact that many hospitals and healthcare centers located in low- and middle-income countries suffer from interrupted supplies of basic, but crucial surgical necessities like water and electricity. We also recently reported on the critical shortage in these countries of blood supplies. 

Related: Why This Life-Saving Medical Device Won $100,000 from Steve Case 

The GE Foundation has lately zeroed in on this global health niche, aiming to make even the most basic surgical procedures safer with the launch of its Safe Surgery 2020 Initiative.

One of the key themes of G.E.'s Safe Surgery 2020 Initiative is innovation. According to Deborah Elam, president of the G.E. Foundation, “We believe safe surgery is an area ripe for innovations. Despite growing momentum, safe surgery is not receiving the attention and funding needed to save lives.”

We'd agree with that assessment. In fact, it's hard to think of many other global health funders who are working this issue with any significant resources. Most such funders have been focused on combating dread diseases like malaria. 

But having huge numbers of people die in surgery for lack of basic supplies is pretty dreadful, too. And this stands as another area where philanthropy can make a difference. 

The G.E. Foundation is committing $25 million over the next three years to its Safe Surgery initiative, which aims to achieve the following goals worldwide: 

  • Accelerate access to safe surgery and anesthesia
  • Reduce maternal mortality
  • Decrease trauma-related mortality rates
  • Create stronger health systems 

G.E.'s Safe Surgery Initiative comes on the heels of similar programs launched by the foundation earlier this year. The most prominent is its $20 million commitment to achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) four and five, announced at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.

Related: GE Foundation Continues to Power Up Healthcare Efforts in Africa

MDGs four and five involve improving maternal and infant mortality rates in Africa. G.E.’s $20 million commitment is working to achieve those goals by supporting programs that involve training biomedical equipment technicians, providing anesthesia training for nurses, safe water solutions in healthcare facilities and figuring out ways to deliver oxygen in facilities that are low on resources—like electricity, for instance.

The foundation also awarded a $3 million grant to Vanderbilt University’s International Anesthesia program, which is expanding to increase its presence in medically underserved areas in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dedicating a substantial amount of money to safe surgery may seem on the surface to be a pretty uncrowded field in global health philanthropy. However, when you break down G.E.'s safe surgery efforts, they intersect with a number of global health and development issues such as access to quality healthcare, improving infant and maternal mortality rates, and last-mile healthcare. All of which are top priorities for just about every global health outfit out there.