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Kenya: Hello Doctor hoping mobile healthcare will be the next big thing

Hello Doctor 600x300In November 2012, Kenyan mobile network operator Safaricom and Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) launched a mobile platform enabling users to save and borrow money on their mobile phones. In nearly three years the service, called M-Shwari, has catapulted CBA, making it the largest bank in Kenya by customer numbers. By March 2015, M-Shwari had deposits of Ksh.153bn (US$1.5bn). CBA says it processes an average of 50,000 loans per day on M-Shwari.

A South African mobile health service provider is now hoping to ride on M-Shwari’s success to disrupt the health industry. Hello Doctor Kenya, part of South African financial services group MMI Holdings, has launched a service called Sema Doc that enables users to save and borrow money for medical expenses via their mobile phones.

The company expanded to Kenya last year and began working with the M-Shwari team to develop a mobile-centric health solution.

“M-Shwari has disrupted (conventional) banking and has used mobile technology to do that, so we thought in the same way we could disrupt the health industry. The M-Shwari team had found out that their customers wanted health problems to be solved in the same convenient way as banking,” says Kelvin Massingham, Hello Doctor’s regional director for East Africa.

Hello Doctor’s clients pay a Ksh.300 ($2.85) monthly subscription to have their own Sema Doc health account where they save money for medical expenses and can access instant loans from CBA bank. Customers also get 24/7 access to a doctor for medical consultations. The team of 30 doctors consult on a wide range of conditions including acne, contraception, erectile dysfunction, flu, gout, seasonal allergies, malaria, diabetes and asthma.

“The doctors can diagnose and advise on 23 conditions. If you have any of those conditions the doctor will send you a prescription via SMS which you can then take to the pharmacy to get the drugs you need,” says Massingham.

Filling a gap in the market

While telephonic consultations cannot replace physical examinations, Massingham says it is a vital service in Kenya where there is a shortage of doctors, and most people have to spend hours to travel to the nearest hospital.

“The gap that we are trying to fill is for early preventative advice. We want to intervene early on in the health journey, enabling patients to get the right advice when they first get sick. If someone has a serious condition like cancer where you need blood tests and physical exams – we refer them to hospitals so they can get the relevant tests done.”

If they are admitted to hospital, Sema Doc subscribers receive Ksh.5,000 ($48), deposited directly to their mobile health account.

“We have designed a process on the back-end which helps to eliminate cases of fraud. So we should be able to tell if you are making up a story. But even if you are, and manage to get through, we really want to create a positive claims experience for customers. We don’t want the fraudsters to ruin that for people who are genuinely claiming. We believe insurance claims should be easy, quick and hassle-free, unlike the painful processes people often go through.”

Hello Doctor is targeting “people who have access challenges [because] they don’t have a huge amount of insurance and they are not currently saving for health – so when they get ill they struggle to pay. Many of our early adopters are women,” says Massingham.

“People with higher incomes want the service because of the convenience of speaking to a doctor on a phone instead of spending time in traffic trying to get to a hospital. We have noticed younger people send in a lot of sexual questions because it’s anonymous.

“So they get a confidential and safe way to discuss issues around the morning-after pill, STDs [and] erectile dysfunction which they might be embarrassed to speak about face-to-face with a doctor.”

Demand outside Nairobi

Hello Doctor wants to reach 200,000 subscribers by the end of this year. So far, Massingham says the service is recording most interest outside of the capital Nairobi where access to health centres and doctors is more challenging.

“Health access issues are not as pronounced in Nairobi. So I think we will grow faster in the centres outside the capital city. We definitely think this could be a game-changer for the healthcare industry in Kenya. We will take the learnings from Kenya and refine [our model] as we expand across the region. We believe there is a big opportunity for this in East Africa.”

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