In Bangladesh, where there are not enough doctors and nurses to provide care for a population of 160 million, almost 70 per cent of care comes from the ‘barefoot doctors’ – 400,000 informal healthcare providers.
An enterprise based on providing these informal health workers with medical information – particularly in prescribing medicine to diabetic and chronic patients – through mobile and smart phones has gone a long way to providing better care for these patients.
Sikder Zakir, managing director of the Telemedicine Reference Centre, said the enterprise had so far reached 1.5 million people with diabetes. But with a total of seven million people with diabetes in Bangladesh, they still had a long way to go.
Another of its projects was aimed at the 11 million Bangladeshi migrants who are working in eight countries in the region. The scheme provides a hotline number for them – and their family members back home – which refers them to the local health services.
The enterprise has been operating for seven years, and in the past two years it had extended to India and Pakistan.
The advantage of the service has been that it could be provided at a far lower cost than by government – and it made business sense too.
The element that worked in favour of his enterprise was that the technology had become significantly cheaper over time. And the potential market of 160 million people made it a powerful platform for attracting investors.
Another example came from South Africa, where the enterprise Care Cross is offering high quality medical care for half the cost of a normal doctors’ visit to members under its medical scheme.
And in Rwanda, a public-private partnership One Family Health was setting up primary healthcare clinics on a franchise system, a business-model which was bringing health care to the village level.
An issue discussed over several of the forum’s sessions was how to stimulate private sector interest in African countries. In India part of the success was the support from its government in attracting private investment, and this government-level support needed to be encouraged on the African continent.
Ralph Schneideman of PATH, the non-profit organisation based in Seattle which aims to transform global health through innovation, said companies in the United States and Europe had lost out on the opportunity to form public-private partnerships with India in the 1990s.
However they now had a window of opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Similar initiatives were starting up in Africa, and these companies did not want to lose out again, he said.
Kathryn Strachan is a freelance health and development journalist working in Johannesburg.
This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012.