Having enjoyed fast-growing success in emerging markets across the Middle East and North Africa region, Dubai-based digital healthcare platform Vezeeta, founded in 2012, is now looking to scale up operations and activities in Africa, at a pivotal time for telemedicine.
In conversation with Omnia Health Insights, Nana Frimpong, the company’s Vice President for Africa, shares Vezeeta’s vision for digital disruption in sub-Saharan Africa to further accessibility and affordability of quality healthcare.
The company soft-launched in Kenya and Nigeria earlier in 2020, drawn by a growing middle class, strong mobile and internet penetration, and a fragmented healthcare marketplace. Through Vezeeta’s technology enabling real-time price and qualified physician discovery, patients are able to conveniently book a consultation either in-person or online.
Evaluating its next move to scale-up, the digital healthcare powerhouse is paving the way for tech-enabled healthcare accessibility across sub-Saharan Africa.
Tech-savvy Kenya and Nigeria
Kenya, a nation of 53 million, stands out as one of the most tech-forward countries in sub-Saharan Africa today, Frimpong explained, and is especially dominant in the fintech space (he cited mobile money transfer service M-Pesa as an example). Healthcare is furthermore relatively expensive in Kenya and the doctor/patient ratio is among the lowest on the continent.
Frimpong added another benefit stating, “Innovations that begin in Kenya proliferate throughout the East Africa region.”
Veezeta’s Nigeria move was based on a decision to scale access and impact in West Africa. “One of the most important countries on the continent,” owing to the sheer size of the market and population, Nigeria offered a unique opportunity to use technology to aggregate a highly fragmented healthcare market while leapfrogging some of the infrastructural challenges in such a large territory to expand healthcare access.
Integrated model succeeds in COVID-hit Kenya
In Kenya a proliferation of telehealth services emerged during the COVID-19 crisis. Yet Vezeeta stood out in the market. Rather than offering technology alone it provided an integrated service including in-person consultations as well as telehealth.
In other words, technology is used to support the continuum of care, rather than supplanting it altogether.
This was ideally suited to Kenya, as while the nation’s doctors are tech-savvy and tech-ready, they also have reservations about prescribing drugs via a teleconsultation and would therefore expect the patient to physically come into the clinic.
If it’s a simple follow-up conversation or an initial consultation to determine what happens next, then the telehealth format “makes a lot of sense,” Frimpong explained.
In Nigeria the nation’s relatively severe lockdown impeded Vezeeta’s ability to get into the market quickly, get its physicians on board and bring them together with patients.
Since the country eased lockdown measures, however, Vezeeta has seen telehealth adoption trail in-clinic but trend in the right direction.
Young patients seek mental care - and care for parents
In terms of how patients have been using Vezeeta’s platform to date, Frimpong revealed that “psychiatry”, while not a mainstream subject in Africa, is a popular category of teleconsultation as bookings to seek mental health support during such unprecedented times grew 3X in September in comparison to August.
Medical specialties such as gynecology and dermatology have seen a growing demand coming in from patients in the East Africa region for teleconsultations with Kenyan doctors on skin issues that they are facing.
In Nigeria, where there remains a disposition towards in-person consultations still, patients are recognizing that they can see a doctor in Lagos from Abuja without having to travel (a distance of approximately 700km), or alternatively they can book ahead of their visit, as opposed to turning up and waiting over 3 hours for an appointment, if at all.
The majority of Vezeeta’s users in Kenya and Nigeria, for both telehealth and traditional bookings, are young, in the 24-35 age bracket (Gen-Z and young Millennials). Surprisingly, many are booking appointments on behalf of their parents - the analytics show that people are booking from Australia, Florida, Canada and the UK, for example, for a parent or loved one living in Nigeria or Kenya.
How a telehealth policy framework could unleash a healthcare revolution
Highlighting that many doctors in both markets are raising questions around legal issues, data security and protection, Frimpong said that for Vezeeta is was “incredibly important” that patients are given the security they need, as well as the company adhering to general ethical practices around data management.
But there remain important questions – for instance what happens in the event of medical malpractice lawsuit. This underlines the need for a clear and robust policy framework to guide how telehealth interactions take place moving forward.
This is especially pertinent, Frimpong believes, in consideration of how telehealth appears to be accelerating more quickly than anticipated.
A well-designed framework would see greater and faster adoption of telehealth solutions - so long as policies and legislation are in favor of expanding access.
He noted how Australia developed a framework bringing together payers, patients and providers in a way that everyone benefits, while in the US, the Department of Health and Human Services lifted restrictions during COVID-19 that allowed people to access care across state lines.
A similar framework that allows patients to safely access doctors across Africa, provided they are licensed and held to the same standards, could prove “revolutionary” for healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa, where there remains a shortage of doctors.
In some rural areas there are few specialists for certain diseases compared to North Africa, where there are physicians across multiple specialties.
A new model could therefore emerge that, through telehealth, integrates local doctors with physicians in other countries who have particular expertise in a given area. Under such a scenario, Frimpong said, patients will be able to select medical care that suits themselves and their families in accordance with their needs and price point – rather like consumers.
On this last point, he elaborated further by saying that uptake surges when patients feel the price point is right, and that it was important to understand how patients price the value proposition of teleconsultations versus in-person consultations.
But physicians too have a different perspective on this, in how they get compensated.
How the two may be reconciled was an area of discussion at Omnia Health Live Africa that Frimpong revealed he looked forward to. The Vezeeta executive later spoke at a session on Policies and regulations shaping telemedicine in Africa: Challenges and opportunities in COVID times when he was joined by panelists from Lagoon Hospitals; Board of Healthcare Funders of Southern Africa; Discovery; and Homeplus Medical Care Services.