Providing national healthcare coverage is an uphill battle in Pakistan, but can Digital Health startups provide the answer and solution?
COVID-19 has hurt us all, but in some areas, at least the ultimate result might be something more substantial, something improved, take the Pakistan healthcare scene as an example.
Pakistan is a low-income country. Healthcare coverage varies, and in the more rural areas, it is quite weak.
“Most employees of corporate organisations in Pakistan can afford some level of healthcare,” says Amjad Mahmood of Hello Doctor, a HealthTech startup that provides of telemedicine services in Pakistan. “But what about the 60 or 70 per cent of the Pakistan population who are self-employed or working in small organisations?” he asks and then adds: “After all, the largest industry in Pakistan is the farming industry. So, you’ve got farmers, one-man-band organisations.”
They do say necessity is the mother of invention. Amjad Mahmood put it this way: “We’ve got to make our services accessible and affordable for everybody at the same level of quality… I don’t want to be left in an environment post-COVID where people working for a multinational still end up getting a better service than those living in a small village in the middle of nowhere.”
So that’s the challenge, and can it be met?
Does Digital Health Provide the Answer?
Maybe digital health, aka HealthTech, services provide the answer. Digital health solutions can be applied to people in remote areas provided they have internet access and a smartphone. Perhaps these services can improve access to and reduce the cost of healthcare in Pakistan. And maybe the COVID crisis will create more focus on these issues from corporations.
As Nadia Bukhari, from doctHERs, said: “Telemedicine has been the answer and the only solution for providing continuity of healthcare provision during the whole pandemic. Demand has skyrocketed. It catalysed us to form partnerships. Now we provide over 25,000 online consultations a week.”
doctHERs has a particular mission – the healthcare sector in Pakistan is operating below capacity in one fundamental respect: failure to fully utilise women. “In Pakistan, over 60 per cent of medical school graduates are women, yet only 25 per cent of practising doctors are women,” states the startup.
It says that to close this gap, “doctHERs’ digital platform re-integrates women healthcare providers into the workforce by remotely connecting them to patients via trusted intermediaries.”
A part of this involves forming partnerships.
But maybe the COVID-19 crisis has made it easier to form partnerships.
As Amjad Mahmood says: “The most positive part of COVID was the collaboration between organisations, local, national services and the sharing of knowledge.”
As for doctHERs, in 2020, it is scaling its community health activation model in collaboration with Unilever, UK DFID, the Punjab government, Pfizer and Philips. It expects this to support two million women in rural villages across 19 districts of Punjab, Sind and KPK.
Want a Partner: Google It
But for building partnerships, it is hard to top Wondertree. They have partnered with Google.
Wondertree is a HealthTech startup in Pakistan that focuses on Digital Therapeutics by gamifying physiotherapy and cognitive development exercises for the therapy and education of children with special needs.
And part of that involves augmented reality. Both a challenge and an opportunity has resulted.
Muhammad Waqas of Wondertree explained that for augmented reality to run its software, it needs technology for providing depth sensing; this usually requires “a specific camera, as this can detect the entire human body and joints. That’s how we get data and reporting.”
That is expensive kit, so up to now, the Wondertree augmented reality solution has been applied at institutions such as schools, hospitals and clinics and also in town centres.
“But the pandemic forced us to focus all attention on the business to consumer solution,” he said. So, the startup is developing a product to act as a “substitute for depth-sensing cameras using a webcam and AI.”
“We are trying to make technology available to masses, and not just in Pakistan,” he said.
You can see why Google would take an interest in a product like that.
It’s a concrete example of how a Pakistan HealthTech startup has firstly been forced to innovate because of the COVID crisis, but also how the crisis has opened the door to prestigious partnerships that may not have otherwise occurred.
“We want a new normal which is helpful for the parent,” says Muhammad Waqas.
A Pharmacy Chain Begins To Go Virtual
“In Pakistan, 40 per cent of drugs people get are either fake or not fit for consumption,” says Irfan Khan, of Dvago. The startup provides a pharmacy chain created to solve that problem – a service that can be trusted. And before COVID it was getting 30,000 people visiting their stores every day.
The answer to COVID has been a focus on e-commerce and e-clinics now supporting all its pharmacies.
“Telemedicine is providing lots of solutions not just for the well to do, but also hard to reach areas, where there is no access to good quality healthcare,” he said.
And it seems that across Pakistan, digital health is taking off. Irfan Khan says, “with the COVID crisis, data traffic has gone up, voice traffic has gone down, more people are using data: there has been a three to four-fold increase in e-commerce data.”
The Webinar and Digital Platforms
As an example, take doctHERs. It recently ran a mental health webinar, with “two social psychiatrists from the UK, a mental health nurse, and a community pharmacist, to speak about the impact of Covid on mental health.
“We are trying to adopt and showcase how shared care and integrated care can work through telehealth and telemedicine,” Nadia Bukhari explained.
As for Hello Doctor. It provides a digital-driven platform that offers qualified doctors for anybody in Pakistan through telephones and smartphones. It also provides a holistic service and has launched Asia’s first musculoskeletal pathway system that enables patients to diagnose issues they might have.
There is an issue, however, and that relates to how tech-savvy the Pakistan population is.
Educating About Tech
“Only 20 to 30 per cent of women in Pakistan have access to a smartphone. And when you do have access to technology being sufficiently tech-savvy is a challenge,” says Nadia Bukhari. But then its business model entails community healthcare workers, who in turn can help communicate the digital message.
Muhammad Waqas says: “We are trying to target the Pakistani audience and trying to educate them. It’s been challenging, but I believe there’s been a positive change with people’s perception of technology.
Digital Health Solutions – An Answer to National Healthcare Coverage?
And so, we return to the beginning. How can decent quality healthcare be provided across the length and breadth of Pakistan?
Amjad Mahmood said: “Healthcare had significant issues in Pakistan long before COVID. Post-COVID we have got to make our services accessible and affordable to everybody at the same level of quality. We are in discussion with various corporations concerning how we can partner with them…But I am rapidly considering what will happen post-COVID. What are we going to do as innovative, forward-thinking, new generational organisations? Are we going to rely on the corporate sector to fund us, or are we going to rely on our benefactors whether it is a private investment or NGOs/charitable organisations, or are we going to look at a 100-year solution for Pakistan, and understand how everybody will be to have the right access at the right affordability, at the right time?” And for emphasis, he added: “for every individual?”
Perhaps digital health startups will help make this vision happen.