Archive for the ‘mHealth’ Tag

Is Kenya’s healthcare sector ready for a take-off?   2 comments

Last month had me traveling around the world courtesy of Saïd Business School’s capstone Strategic Consulting Project and our multinational corporate partner who is currently looking to become more invovled in healthcare innovation in developing countries. I just finished my second short stint in Nairobi, and I am thoroughly impressed by a number of developments in Kenya. The current macroenvironment for healthcare in Kenya combined with individuals’ entrepreneurial efforts has produced palpable excitement in the sector that may well signal a new dawn for healthcare in the country. Most interesting, the opportunities for Kenyan private sector healthcare may be the best they have ever been.

One of the most important macroenvironment trends is the improving political stability since the post-election ethnic conflict of  2007-2008. Since then, a new constitution has been ratified and the upcoming elections will be preceded by a number of bureaucratic improvements that will streamline the alignment of commercial ventures with committed policy-making. This political normalization has also allowed for an increasing amount of “business as usual” from the administrative arm of the government including more direct financial management of HIV/AIDS spending and a new eHealth strategic plan. Although the next round of elections scheduled for 2013 may well herald a new wave of vote-rigging and subsequent violence, the two rival political parties from the last election have learned to work together through power-sharing and the knowledgeable city-dwellwers I have spoken to in Nairobi seem optimistic.

mPESA Transaction

Many groups are trying to repeat mPESA’s success in mobile money payments by coming up with similar mobile-related leapfrog applications for healthcare. (Courtesy of OpenIDEO)

Another trend occurring in Kenya is the overwhelming success of modern mobile telecom infrastructure. Nearly every business venture I met with in Kenya includes in its business model a component related to mobile technology. Mobile technology in developing countries has been shown to be a major catalyst for healthcare development but where Kenya stands out is in its mobile phone penetration. Over 70% of Kenyans own and use a mobile phone and nearly a 1/4 of the country’s GDP is transacted through Safaricom’s mPESA mobile payment service (see more).

All of these trends have directly stoked the entrepreneurial efforts of many Kenyans. Zoe Alexander Ltd is a new technology start-up who is leveraging automated telephone systems (“robo-dialing”) and Kenya’s high mobile penetration to deliver personalized audio messages to pregnant mothers that time appropriate antenatal visits and warn mothers’ of “red flag” warning signs during pregnancy. Zoe Alexander and others have also focused on bypassing the existing healthcare infrastructure because of the its overly bureaucratic nature in Kenya. Another example is Changamka Microhealth’s use of health savings accounts to incentivize individuals to save rather than trying to expand the relatively small population footprint of the country’s national social insurance plan. The latter’s bureaucracy was unable to design a means of participating in the plan for individuals that did not work for major Kenyan corporations.

While such initiatives will not radically change the health and wellbeing of the average Kenyan overnight, these efforts should be complimented for their inventiveness and aspirations for self-sufficiency. Through my travels last month, I have heard far too many stories of companies seeking overly traditional approaches to reaching low- and middle-income healthcare consumers. Marketing techniques designed for industrialized countries will not work elsewhere unless modified to local conditions. Home-grown, for-profit healthcare in Kenya may be the first sign of lessons learned.

Disclosure: I, nor my summer employer, have any financial positions in the companies listed here. However, my trip to Kenya was funded as part of business development field research for a multinational corporation.

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FoetoH – Good science. Good medicine?   1 comment

I recently came across FoetoH, a fetal heart rate monitoring device that has been developed at the University of Oxford. Unlike other forms of fetal health monitors, FoetoH is designed to be used by laypeople and in a real-time manner. Rather than giving health information output in complex jargon or graphs, the device provides a stoplight-style assessment (green, yellow, red) of a developing fetus’ current health. The scientific breakthrough was developing an exercise belt-like device (think exercise heart rate monitors) that a mother-to-be wears all the time that communicates with a handheld unit (or iPhone app) which facilitates data storage and interpretation.

The idea of FoetoH is attractive because of its synthesis of the latest technology trends (i.e., mobile-based health applications, user-oriented design) and advanced health monitoring devices. The marketing materials of FoetoH are excellent and describe this device as potential breakthrough to help address the more than 2 million stillborn babies born each year around the world. The basis of this claim is that mothers who know their pregnancy is in trouble (indicated by a “yellow” or “red light” on the device) could receive emergent medical care to improve fetal outcomes.

Unfortunately, such a simplified product and health solution obscure some major logical flaws in their existing argument. For FoetoH to contibrute to a reduction in worldwide stillbirths, the device needs to prove itself to be more than just effective at measuring fetal heart rates. FoetoH’s founders need to be able to demonstrate that identifying changes in fetal heart rates is an effective way of identifying AND preventing still births. Why do I raise this issue? The limited data available on still births demonstrates that the majority of still births are due to genetic and environmental insults that go well beyond impaired cardiovascular support of the fetus. Many of these stillbirths are due to unknown  genetic causes, infectious disease, or severe malnourishment, and fetal distress (erratic fetal heart rates) is an end-stage sign of imminent still birth. In these cases, last-minute emergency care would have virtually no chance of preventing “fetal demise” (technical term for still birth). It is also unclear that FoetoH’s real-time monitoring is any more effective than current guidelines for antenatal care which include regular physician visits and routine ultrasound scans at pregnancy milestones.

Moreover, it is unlikely that most mothers at risk for stillbirth would be able to gain access to the FoetoH device. Its currently reported cost of manufacturing is approximately $80. A public sector price is likely at least twice as expensive with a market price even more. Given that the vast majority of stillbirths occur in impoverished women from developing countries, the target population who could potentially benefit from such a device would be unlikely to be able to afford it. Even if such devices were provided free of charge to high-risk mothers, the limited benefit of using the device I raised in the prior paragraph would likely outweigh the high cost to health systems.

These issues are not lost on healthcare device makers familiar with the product. At Oxford’s recent TATA Idea Idol business plan pitch competition – where FoetoH was a finalist – judge Will Chadwick of TATA Interactive Systems noted that the only realistic market for FoetoH were overly concerned mothers from the industrialized world who were willing to pay for a device that provided peace of mind rather than a clear-cut medical benefit over existing practices.

In fairness to FoetoH, its TATA Idea Idol team went on to win this year’s competition despite Chadwick’s misgivings (so someone clearly thinks FoetoH has something going for it). In the end, the science and potential commercial market for the device were convincing enough to beat out a number of strong competitors. FoetoH is a useful reminder for clinicians. Sound science and commercial availability do not make good medicine. Healthcare providers have to always maintain a critical eye and question new healthcare good and services to ensure that they are consistent with the individual provider’s aims and means of care as well.

What to do about the worldwide healthcare workforce shortage?   Leave a comment

A community health worker registering patients at a rural health fair

A community health worker is seen here registering patients at a rural health fair outside Thomonde, Haiti. Community health workers are critical at serving "last mile" healthcare needs and are typically deeply embedded in communities.

It is widely acknowledged that the developing world is in the midst of a healthcare personnel crisis. Even the citizens of middle-income countries that have begun to reap the rewards of increasing standards of living and the emergence of disposable incomes are finding that local health systems lack the healthcare personnel to provide adequate care. The World Health Organization estimates that  57 countries lack the health care personnel needed to reach health-related Millennium Development Goals. Even small increases in the ratio of healthcare workers to the general population correlate with substantial declines in maternal, infant, and child mortality.

Unfortunately, progress is not being made fast enough, and the primary problem is lack of infrastructure. The consulting firm McKinsey & Co. has modeled current workforce education capabilities and estimates that $33 billion and 300 new medical schools would be needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone to meet the continent’s workforce needs. Radical changes to the existing system of healthcare workforce education are needed if health systems are to meet the demands of a world in need of accessible and quality healthcare.

The current paradigm of health workforce education across much of the world involves a massive financial and social investment into the education of highly-skilled, upper-tier medical professionals that typically requires 5-10 years of higher education. However, in a number of developing countries, substantial healthcare services have been provided with less highly trained mid-level providers.

Pharmacist providing medicine and counseling

Having trained pharmacists available at dispensaries ensures that patients receiving proper counseling on the use of medications.

Changing the workforce shortage starts with changing the paradigm. New models of healthcare workforce education need to be tried that move away from the high-cost, state-run institutions currently being used. One alternative would be to begin offering private, market-based programs that provide a more flexible path to licensure as mid-level providers. These programs could use a modified version of distance education — already popular in the developing world — and take advantage to the expanding technical capabilities of mobile networks in these communities.

The biggest obstacle to experimenting with new workforce education strategies is the regulatory environment. Many governments in the developing world still find it difficult to license mid-level providers given their unusual place in the medical hierarchy and these governments’ lack of experience with such providers. Additionally, these novel education schemes would need to be accredited as well.

Given these regulatory hurdles, a “bottom-up” approach of market creation is unlikely to work for new education models. Hence, the workforce shortage issue is ultimately a policy problem. If one is able to leverage government policymakers, these new models of medical workforce training represent a great opportunity for addressing the biggest, least recognized problem affecting global health today.

Interested in learning more? See this proposal I previously prepared on how such market-based education solutions could be implemented given the risky regulatory environment.