It is often said that mobile technology and the Internet of Things could prove the salvation of socialised medicine in the West.
However, if we think of countries with altogether less developed, less monolithic healthcare systems, the same technology – with its capacity to empower end users and decentralise care – arguably offers still greater potential.
Nigeria in 2015 is a good case in point.
About four years ago, Emeka Onyenwe (founder of the award-winning Find-A-Med application) moved back to Lagos from London, having completed an MA in Technology and Entrepreneurship at UCL. Shortly afterwards, a friend he was living with fell ill, and he found himself driving them around the city trying to find a decent doctor.
Cue tech start-up “eureka” moment.
“I was working on a project for another company that had to do with mapping,” says Onyenwe. “It just hit me. I went on to search for how many directories were out there for hospitals and medical centres. Then I decided to take it a step further and do the prototype to validate the market to see if it was a problem that people wanted to see solved. That’s where Find-A-Med was born.”
The concept of a mobile medical directory makes special sense in a country with a number of fake doctors and pharmacists.
“We’re in the process of partnering with the Nigerian Medical Association,” he says. “It could be their registered directory for registered practitioners. We’re still in the works of finalising everything though. A lot of things happened last year to slow things down but we’ve been building a team.”
Among such impediments was the Ebola crisis. In retrospect, however, Onyenwe says that this crisis was something of a watershed moment for Nigerian healthcare.
“When the Ebola thing happened, everybody realised that Nigeria has got it together. I thought it was going to be way worse than it actually was. But we were able to control it. We could see people step forward who cared about their health, and doctors doing the right thing and people promoting Ebola awareness.”
Indeed, Onyenwe says that the successful containment of Ebola was consistent with shifting national attitudes towards healthcare.
“Across Nigeria, people are getting more and more involved. They see we need to be caring more about their health. It’s in the early stages, but you can feel that this buzz is coming along and it’s going to take off.”
It is an atmosphere than Find-A-Med can really take advantage of, along with countless other innovators in the space.
“When I went to present my application to the NMA, there were a bunch of other companies there trying to get their endorsement as well. There’s still a lot of things and a lot of hindrances but the time is coming. There’s a lot of investment coming into Nigeria. Where it used to like a one man technology firm, now a lot of people are coming together and forming actual tech teams and being funded, and they are generating revenue. The tech industry’s looking up for Nigeria in terms of infrastructure and growth in general.”
While Find-A-Med is presently focussed on perfecting its directory service and business model, Onyenwe clearly senses potential that goes well beyond its simple (if vital) directory service.
“A lot of people have come to ask if there a way that, if you’re searching for a pharmacy, you can find out what drugs the pharmacy has — for instance if a certain insulin drug is available. We’re thinking of ways we can solve those sorts of problems. Do you want to chat to the doctor? Do you want to have a mobile consultation? You could have an Uber for doctors or health experts. Actually linking patients up to a certain medical professional, such as a gynaecologist. It could really transform into so many different things.”
The question of how scalable Find-A-Med could prove is something Onyenwe is keen to explore while visiting South Africa for the first time in November to attend Apps World Africa in Cape Town.
“We’re big on collaboration,” he says. “We’re always looking for the right people to work with. We’re always looking for the right investors. You want to work with the right person to push the vision forward.”
In connecting people with affordable, proper healthcare, this is one area that mobile healthcare could make a massive difference in the years to come.