Enterprise comes to the aid of health

April 27, 2012

Kathryn Strachan

Kathryn Strachan

Forum 2012 has heard several examples of ways in which entrepreneurs in developing countries are beating a new path for bringing health innovation to poor communities.

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. 

Still no silver bullet

June 9, 2011

Tom Wheeler, Image Credit: GSMA

The conference ended last night on a positive note for developing countries. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the board of the mHealth Alliance, told the closing session that the developing world’s patchy healthcare systems make them extra suitable for mHealth applications, which will increasingly depend on services hosted in cyberspace, as opposed to facilities on the ground.

That said, mHealth solutions do not need to be sophisticated to deliver, he added. “It’s all about information, and the network that facilitates the transfer of information. And that information doesn’t have to be ‘zeros’ and ‘ones’. The ability to make a phone call to get someone to take a pregnant mother who is in distress, to a medical facility — there is nothing technologically revolutionary about that. But the impact of that is transformational.”

Personally, I got the feeling that many of the challenges and opportunities that have surfaced during the conference have done so before — and will do so again, at future mobile health meets. “It’s always the same talk,” said a woman I spoke to whose mHealth business had a stall at the exhibition part of the conference.

Another issue was the lack of doctors at a meeting dedicated to healthcare. One speaker on Tuesday commented that although this was a conference about healthcare, all the panelists on the stage at that moment were technology types.

So I leave heartened by what I’ve heard, and the enthusiasm I’ve seen, but wondering when we’ll see the promise of mHealth fulfilled in my own back yard in South Africa. It’s clear that what everybody is waiting and hoping for is a healthcare breakthrough like m-pesa, the mobile banking system that has become hugely successful in Kenya. Something so obviously useful that it can’t help but succeed.

There was no such silver bullet presented at this conference. But given the strong interest from techies and policymakers alike to get mHealth off the ground, this won’t be the last we hear on the subject.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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