US-born Kaakpema Yelpaala is the entrepreneur behind ClinicCommunicator, a web application that allows healthcare professionals to communicate with patients via mobile phones in Uganda.
Using the service, medical personnel can electronically record basic patient information into cloud-based software, and then schedule and send SMS reminders for medicine, scripts and appointments. The model makes use of an annual subscription fee.
It is a simple solution but can significantly improve communication between healthcare professionals and patients. In most African countries patient administration generally makes use of paper-based records, and overburdened clinics and hospitals often struggle to communicate effectively with patients.
“Typically a front desk administrator might try to call patients to remind them of their appointment. But that administrator also deals with patient intake and all the front desk duties, and it is a lot of work,” explained Yelpaala.
“So there are often times when people don’t receive those phone calls, and if they don’t receive them they are more likely to miss their appointments.”
Yelpaala became aware of this problem while working on a number of public health projects across the continent, after completing his Masters in public health at Yale University. In 2004 he joined the Clinton Health Access Initiative where he held various positions within East Africa, and it wasn’t long before he witnessed the boom in mobile phone adoption and realised the potential it provided for innovation.
He founded Access.mobile in 2011, a company aiming to develop digital health solutions, and by 2013 he was piloting ClinicCommunicator in Uganda, offering free trial periods to public and private practitioners. “Because it is a new product we had to build the trust of the market,” Yelpaala explained.
In 2014 Access.mobile won an innovation prize from Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative. “We were one of five companies to win an African wide innovation award, and that involved some grant money. But even more [importantly] it involved all kinds of other support such as building the capacity of the team, software development, business strategy and helping us find new partners.”
He added the company is also now developing additional software capabilities for clients, such as SMS-based vouchers to improve engagement with low-income patients.
Uganda a market ripe for innovation
While patient communication is a problem for medical practitioners across the continent, Yelpaala explained he wanted to first introduce his solution in the Ugandan market.
“Uganda is actually a great starting place to kind of incubate an idea and try to validate a product concept,” he highlighted.
“And the market had a lot of key requirements. It wasn’t crowded in terms of health technology. There was improving telecommunications infrastructure, and wireless network infrastructure was expanding rapidly so there was improving connectivity throughout the country. And Ugandan healthcare providers were starting to be more open to technology tools to help them run their clinics and hospitals. So it was basically the convergence of those factors.”
However, the company is now expanding to Kenya in partnership with Dutch group, PharmAccess Foundation.
“[PharmAccess] are focused on expanding access to quality healthcare through the private sector for the low-income population in Africa. And in Kenya we are partnering with them to further test the benefits of ClinicCommunicator for hospitals in the region.”
While Yelpaala is also looking at other key markets in East and West Africa, he noted expansion relies on a variety of factors, including the regulatory environment and local partnerships (such as with telecommunications companies).
“I believe that in African markets you can come up with solutions that solve problems in a pan-Africa or global way… But one of the big challenges in the African context is how to scale from country to country,” he added.
“Cross-country scaling is really not that straightforward. And while we are getting enquiries for ClinicCommunicator from all over Africa, and even from some other parts of the world, we have to be very thoughtful about how we expand… given the realities of [different countries].”