Africa and the rise of 'doctors on demand'

A new wave of medical health apps aim to change poor medical access for Africans

The doctor-patient ratio in most African countries is very worrying. According to the latest World Health Organization statistics, Sub-Saharan Africa has an average ratio of one physician to every 1000 people.

African countries including Uganda and Kenya, have in the past complained that they are dealing with a brain drain in the medical industry. While citizens, especially in rural areas have to contend with long treks and queues to get medical attention.

Now new technologies have been built around healthcare that are working to improve the situation for ordinary Africans. Totohealth, that we covered previously, helps new mothers to get maternal information through text messages. Since our coverage the company has raised US$140,000, a fact which underlines the need of such services.

Babylon, a UK company that has made international headlines, enables users to get ‘doctors on demand’ through mobile apps. The company said that they are planning to launch their services in Africa where access to medical services is a challenge.

This service connects users to doctors via a simple query and facilitates the action using smartphone-app enabled video conferencing.

In last year’s Transform Africa conference in Kigali, Rwanda, Tracey McNeil, the Chief Clinical Operations Officer at Babylon, said that they are creating an app that would be able to work in Africa for feature phones.

“What we have developed is a whole health service in your smartphone. We have been working with Rwanda and we know that the scarce resources here are the doctors and physicians,” McNeil said.

The service also allows users to ask questions through a text message and you get back a reply within five to ten minutes. McNeil says the response is research-based. Artificial Intelligence in the application helps to segment the types of questions asked and the appropriate responses sought.

One application, BisaApp, has also launched in Africa to help users to access doctors on demand via smartphone. With the app, patients can have an online chat through a questionnaire with local doctors who are partners on the platform.

“The feedback we are getting from Bisa is very encouraging especially the testimonials from people who have utilised the application,” Raindolf Owusu, the founder of BisaApp tells IDG Connect. “Bisa is giving young people who are shy of asking doctors questions about their reproductive health, the opportunity to hide behind their phones to ask the right questions.”

Owusu, a Ghanaian entrepreneur, is not new in the innovation arena. In fact, last year he was named as one of the most promising entrepreneurs in Africa by Forbes for his company, Oasis Websoft, which develops numerous applications.  

This new application, that is currently free for use, aims to improve medical health in Ghana and soon across the continent. But Owusu does not believe that such avenues can replace the traditional consultations, and has issued a disclaimer on the site.

“Bisa is not a substitute for the conventional medical treatment people get when they visit the doctor. Bisa only allows users to ask our official doctors questions, guidelines, information and tips for managing their health,” he wrote.

Since February 2015 when it launched, BisaApp has had a great reception with currently over one thousand downloads over iOS and Windows platforms, with Android proving the most popular.

The current lack of extensive mobile broadband reach has also been addressed in the application. While Owusu adds that they are planning to integrate other ways to deliver content to feature phones.

“We will then introduce USSD/SMS which is available on all kinds of mobile devices plus we aim to introduce local language support,” he tells us.

“Bisa doesn't consume so much data. The application is about 3MB to download. It is currently available on smartphones and we are seeking strategic partners to come on board for us to scale to rural areas with little or no Information Technology infrastructure.”

Medical confidentiality is something that is a challenge for such products. Most countries have legislation that require doctors’ information to be hidden from third parties.

Owusu explains that on his product, “The doctors have access to the backend portal and also choose their own authentication method to view the queries they get. That portal is only accessible to our six doctors not even the technical team has access to that portal.”

According to Owusu there is still a lot of room for mobile medical services to innovate as the continent gains access to internet and broadband services.

His idea is to make use of data they gather to help doctors and medical workers create a repository of insights into new trends.

Such on demand services have taken over the world including companies such as Jumia, Uber, Airbnb and Netflix. Owusu thinks that this is the way forward for African entrepreneurs.

“It is very important that we, as Africans, utilise on demand services like Bisa. The ratio of a doctor to a patient right now [is so low] so instead of joining a long queue to ask a simple health related question, you can do so at the comfort of your home via Bisa.

“E-Commerce is another example of how people are cutting their transportation cost by just staying home and making purchases online. I think on demand is here to make our lives much easy in Africa,” he concludes.