Covid-19 exposed how grossly inadequate Nigeria’s healthcare infrastructure is. But the other side of that coin is that the pandemic also attracted significant interest in the health sector from the Nigerian government, the Nigerian private sector and major international organisations.
Because of the pandemic, the country witnessed a huge increase in health infrastructure development. This includes the acquisition of new health facilities and equipment like world-class isolation centres with adequate bed spaces, ventilators, molecular laboratories etc.
There was also a surge in healthcare financing, like the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) N100 billion credit intervention to support local pharmaceutical companies and other health companies to upscale their solutions to meet the need.
But beyond government and international organisations, another significant impact was the adoption and demand for telemedicine and other digitally accessible healthcare interventions by Nigerians. However, telemedicine service providers are struggling to meet up with this surge in demand and their biggest problem; the shortage of doctors.
In a chat with me, Ayo Adebamowo, CEO of MyMedicalBank, a digital healthcare company based in Nigeria, said even though the term ‘telemedicine’ may not yet resonate with Nigerians, there’s been a surge in telemedicine services like speaking or video chatting with a doctor online.
“It is evident that the Covid-19 pandemic accentuated the demand for telemedicine and other digitally-accessible healthcare interventions in Nigeria. While the term “telemedicine” may not yet resonate strongly with the Nigerian public, we have seen a surge in the demand from consumers seeking to ‘speak to a doctor online’, ‘do video call with a doctor’ among others,” he said.
MyMedicalBank is a B2B2C health technology platform that employs a user-centred cloud-based platform to provide services like telemedicine, clinic visits, homecare, electronic medical records, health market among others. The startup’s goal is to introduce a coordinated approach to identifying and tackling health inequalities at the global level.
Shortage of doctors is a problem
Speaking about the general reception of his company’s solution, the CEO said the company’s app has been received quite enthusiastically by organisations operating in the health space.
He noted that MyMedicalBank’s telemedicine service was only launched in 2020 in response to market demands from healthcare organisations particularly hospitals which were experiencing a significant reduction in patient attendance and by consequence a fall in their revenue.
But while the introduction of the telemedicine service was received as a welcome development, the biggest obstacle to its adoption was a lack of doctors and other admin staff.
“While the reception was generally positive and enthusiastic, the biggest obstacle to adoption cited by most healthcare organisations was lack of manpower – not having enough doctors to be redeployed to provide telemedicine service,” Adebamowo said.
As of February 2021, Nigeria’s doctor to patient ratio stands at 1 doctor to 5,000 patients according to a Guardian report. This is a very far cry from 1 to 600 as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). 11 months earlier (March 2020) Nigeria’s ratio stood at 1 to 3,000 patients.
It is therefore clear to see that Nigeria is quickly losing doctors. Telemedicine is a critical technology that could have played a vital role in bridging the huge gap created by this increasing shortage. But with the worsening welfare and the high demand for Nigerian doctors in countries like Saudi-Arabia, even telemedicine is set to take a big hit.
Notwithstanding, MyMedicalBank CEO said his company has continued to engage healthcare organisations, offering to help them overcome these obstacles and to provide them compelling data-driven insights on the potential impact on their customer-acquisition drives.
Serving the underserved
Telemedicine as a service won’t achieve the best if only people living in major cities have access to it. Responding to a question on how his company intends to reach the underserved population in rural areas who need this service, Ayo Adebamowo said his company’s vision is to accelerate the digitization of healthcare access for the average Nigerian.
He said MyMedicalBank has onboarded clinics, hospitals, medical laboratories, HMOs, and care organisations scattered across 27 states on its platform. He said one of the critical factors to actualising its vision is the company’s strategic move to onboard as many underserved people as possible unto these organisations.
On how they plan to achieve this since most of the underserved lack internet access, he said those who have phones but no internet can simply call and the startup will connect them with healthcare providers.
But for those who lack access to both phone and internet particularly in the rural areas, our strategy is to seek partnership with Governmental agencies and NGOs to leverage digital technology to bring healthcare to doorsteps of rural dwellers. This is to be done by building health hubs around the few community health workers routinely deployed to these areas on health outreaches.Ayo Adebomowo
He said the company is also working to enable users to book services through USSD.
How MyMedicalBank works
MyMedicalBank is essentially a software as a service (SaaS) platform because the crust of its business is offering its app to health organisations who then pay a subscription fee for it. The Telemedicine app, for instance, allows healthcare organisations to provide virtual medical consultation to patients via a secured video call.
Hospitals, HMOs and other health organisations register for a corporate account that enables them to onboard their doctors and other healthcare professionals who are in turn assigned to offer consultation to patients booking telemedicine from these organisations.
The startup currently boasts 800 doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals on its platform, according to the CEO. Most of them are based in Nigeria with a few based in the UK. The CEO said doctors willing to earn supplemental income are able to register independently on the platform at no cost.
Individual customers can also receive consultations by simply registering as a client and booking an appointment with any of the providers and pay.
The CEO said the telemedicine subscription fee is only N50,000 a year for organisations regardless of their size. Registration and onboarding take less than 20 minutes and do not require any technical expertise on the part of the organisations.
Organisations can set their own availability for Telemedicine and the fees they want to charge patients. Some on the platform for instance set theirs as N3,000 for a standard session of 15 minutes with the patient paying more if they need to extend it.
There is no limit on the number of telemedicine sessions an organisation can provide in a day or where in the world the patients can come from.
MyMedicalBank makes money primarily by charging a commission of 10% on every booking made to any organisation on the platform.
A great majority of health organisations across Nigeria still operate silo systems with paper-based medical records. While they may be open to embracing digital technology to provide efficient services, the technology setup and management are highly expensive.
Digital health services like MyMedicalBank could help solve these problems as well as the problem of managing doctors who, in a country like Nigeria, are increasingly becoming scarce by the day.