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Nobel Laureate Develops Low-Cost Health Care System for Bangladesh

Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh is developing a health care network for the poor in his country that will operate at low cost using mobile phone technology. Yunus is working with U.S. medical experts to help Bangladeshi villagers transmit their medical information to doctors in far-away cities for better treatment.

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for setting up a bank in his native Bangladesh to provide small loans to impoverished women to help them to become entrepreneurs.

In recent years, he has expanded the work of his Grameen Bank to focus on improving health care for the 40 percent of Bangladeshis who live on less than a dollar a day.

On a visit to Washington this week, Yunus told an international health conference that Grameen Health, an affiliate of Grameen Bank, has 51 clinics that offer low-cost treatment to villagers who pay an insurance premium of just $2 a year.

But he says many doctors who run the rural clinics want to stay only a few months before returning to the cities, which forced him to rethink the operation. "One of the alternatives we decided on finally is that maybe we should not even try to bring the doctors in the village. And that is what we now are working on - redesigning the system," he said.

Yunus says he is working with U.S. medical experts to create health care centers that allow villagers to transmit their medical information over the Internet using cellular telephones to a far-away doctor's computer.

"He can see it on the screen and decide what the advice should be in this particular case and pick up the mobile phone and tell the health management center what is the next step to take, what precautions, whatever advice they have," he said.

Yunus began his partnership with the U.S. health care providers last September to help to make his Bangladeshi clinics more cost-efficient and self-supporting.

One of his partners, Pfizer - the world's biggest pharmaceutical maker - is helping to evaluate Grameen's health care delivery systems. Another is General Electric, the world's top maker of medical imaging devices such as ultrasound machines. GE is working with villagers to make diagnostic equipment less complex and easier to carry to people's homes. And the Mayo Clinic, a leading nonprofit medical provider, is training village doctors and nurses how to use state of the art medical equipment.

Yunus says another way to make his health care network sustainable is to encourage Bangladeshi women to train as nurses and become part of the Grameen health care system.

"In Bangladesh, we are in a very strange situation where there are three doctors per nurse because the shortage of nurses is so big. So we thought we could turn it around. You have plenty of girls with good quality education. We can run them through the nursing colleges, and they become good health care workers and they will fill up the gap," he said.

If Yunus's health care system succeeds in Bangladesh, he says he hopes the model can be replicated to help millions of people throughout the developing world.