Starting and growing a telemedicine business in Uganda

Rocket Health's call centre

Rocket Health’s call centre.

While working in Uganda’s health industry, Dr. Davis Musinguzi noticed that patients often consulted their healthcare providers far too late, which affected the outcome of their treatment.

“We thought that if only there was a way for the patients to receive the right information early on in the progression of the disease, maybe even remotely, we could have been able to give them a better prognosis,” he says.

Teaming up with five other co-founders, all with a background in healthcare, Musinguzi helped establish Rocket Health, a telemedicine start-up, in 2012.

Developing the service

The initial model was a call centre that provided mobile phone consultations for patients.

“It operated 24-hours a day seven days a week. We got a pretty good idea of who is going to call in and what they were going to call in about,” he says. Within the first six months around 7,000 people had used the service.

Operating this model for around five years, Rocket Health eventually made the decision to offer additional services on top of phone consultations. “Consumers loved consultations and wanted us to start providing other medical services, like pharmacy services, lab services and specialist visits.”

Rocket Health now runs an end-to-end healthcare service that begins with a phone call consultation but also covers many other auxiliary services – even the delivery of drugs and the collection of medical tests via a fleet of motorbikes. The company charges a fee for each consultation and on the delivery of services. Rocket Health now has around 40,000 customers on the platform. It employs more than 30 doctors who each take around 200 calls a day, seven days a week.

Dr. Davis Musinguzi, CEO of Rocket Health

Dr. Davis Musinguzi, CEO of Rocket Health

Getting doctors and customers on board

One of the initial challenges the company faced was overcoming hesitancy from customers and potential staff members who were not familiar with the innovative service.

“On the consumer side there is a clear advantage, they don’t have to travel to a clinic or go to a pharmacist, but how do you get doctors on board? What is the real attraction for them to work at Rocket Health rather than in a hospital or a clinic?” the CEO says.

One of the main benefits for doctors, he continues, is working in an environment with less stress than public or private hospitals. Talking over the phone, in a calmer environment, also allows the doctors to have more detailed conversations with the patient.

Rocket Health is currently working on AI-powered software that would allow doctors to quickly run patients through a set of questions to help them identify diseases faster. The service can currently identify up to 90% of the conditions through the combination of a phone call and remote lab tests. For the remaining cases, Rocket Health has an in-house consultation clinic that allows doctors to see patients in person.

Although some patients were initially hesitant that a remote consultation would be effective, Musinguzi says that the service has quickly grown by word of mouth, without having to invest that much in marketing. “When someone tries it, they tell their friends about it, tell them how they actually got better and it grows from there.”

Rocket Health offers remote lab tests.

Rocket Health offers remote lab tests.

Growing the user base

The service is currently operated through USSD technology and phone calls but will soon expand to a mobile application which will “provide a lot more seamless possibilities integrated with internal software”. USSD is a way of offering app-like services to owners of feature phones through text messages.

The co-founder says that they chose to start with basic technology to make the service available to the mass market.

“We were very mindful in the beginning about how we designed our software. We wanted to create a channel of access that my grandmother can use. She knows how to send an SMS. Everybody knows how to use USSD technology to buy data or airtime. These were fantastic channels for people to be able to quickly get access to a telemedicine service,” he explains.

The new mobile application will allow the business to tap into a different type of customer. It will also open up the possibility of adding more advanced services like sharing patient health records with other institutions and a digital wallet that allows users to save on the platform. A move in this direction, however, will require more complicated technology than the USSD service.

“When you are looking for developers, you have to orient them on how to build technology for digital healthcare services. A lot of healthcare services haven’t been digitised before. It’s a very young industry. There is nobody with ten years of experience in telemedicine across Africa,” Musinguzi says.

The next step for Rocket Health is expanding to neighbouring Kenya, where the CEO expects to increase the number of users by up to eight times. The ultimate aim after that will be to expand the service across the rest of the continent.

Rocket Health managing director Dr. Davis Musinguzi’s contact information

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