For a health sector that has, for decades, depended on paper documentation for filing of medical records and history, going digital can well be likened to pouring new wine into an old wineskin.
This is why Tito Ovia, co-founder and head of Public Sector Growth at Helium Health – a healthtech company devoted to digitising Nigeria’s healthcare delivery system – explained that the company’s major challenge has been about eliminating paper in the system.
“Some people have lived their years and built their entire careers around the paper documentation. Keeping records and files in cabinets and moving them from one office to the other has been some person’s entire job, so they are of course not disposed to the idea of taking paper out of the entire process,” she explained.
This, she said, is the core of the company’s existence. Being in the 21st century, it is time to move beyond the years where the hospital staff spend precious time looking for a patient’s file and medical records, time that could be the thin line between life and death.
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Tito was a guest on Nairametrics’ Business Half Hour programme when she disclosed all these. According to her, she always knew about the deficiencies in Nigeria’s health sector, and pictured herself becoming that medical doctor who would change the health delivery system in the country.
However, when she could not get into medical school after two attempts, she decided to study Bio-Medical sciences at the University of Manchester. While taking the course, she developed interest in public health primarily because it has to do with helping a community of people access better health. This later influenced the start of her career in the Lagos State AIDS Control Agency.
Spotting a challenge
While working with the team to conduct tests and carrying out HIV counselling for patients within Lagos state, Tito observed a documentation problem.
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“There were just too many papers involved in documentation and it was clear that the system could not be organised. Compiling records and stats for the government using papers had a lot of issues, and there was of course the problem of accuracy of figures,” she explained during the show.
Dealing with paper documentation meant that there was always going to be a backlog of work to do, and data to validate, and in a fast-paced world where time is of essence to saving a life, Tito realised that something had to be done.
Working hand-in-hand with her friends and partners, Adegoke Olubusi and Dimeji Sofowora, Helium Health was founded in 2016 as an all-encompassing healthcare solution for the Nigerian health sector.
Healthcare solution for all
Heliumhealth has a suite of healthcare solutions that caters to providers of healthcare, and all players in the sector.
There is the EMR (electronic management records) solutions that digitises the entire process so that staff of medical facilities are not running helter-skelter in search of files and paperwork before treating a patient. With a tap of the finger, they can access the patients’ records and medical history.
Ultimately, Ovia explains, the aim is to have an integrated healthcare delivery system, rather than the fragmented health system which is currently obtainable in Nigeria.
“You should be able to work into any hospital without any card, and get treated when they access your records. And then, they could send your prescription digitally to the pharmacy where you simply stop by and pick it without having to take any hand-written prescription,” she stated.
At a time when several reports have claimed that thousands of deaths occur annually from poorly written prescriptions, and some from wrong prescriptions due to lack of access to a patient’s medical history, this is definitely a welcome addition to the health sector system.
Another target of Helium Health is providing data. Year after year, government makes budgetary allocations to the health sector based on speculations instead of valid statistics. Having an integrated real-time record across the country means that the government would be able to get access to real-time information on what is going on in the health sector.
“At every point, the government should know if there is any increase in the occurrence of malaria for instance in a particular community, or which community is having more maternal deaths at every time. With this, budgets can be made knowing the right places to channel funds and infrastructure.”
This can hardly be possible when there are still lots of health institutions keeping fragmented records, and traditional nurses and birth attendants whose records rarely get into any central system.
A special solution for a special market
Unlike many other countries, Nigeria has a market where a significant percentage of the would-be users of the Helium Health application had limited computer literacy. Some have not had cause to use any applications that is more complex than Facebook, and this according to Tito is the reason that previous similar solutions from foreign companies failed.
“We decided that we were going to build something that had all the functionalities but is as exciting and simple to use as possible. With our design, anyone that can use WhatsApp or Facebook should be able to use it with little efforts.”
To compensate for job losses that could result from adopting the technology, Tito explained that Helium Health tries to equip such staff with necessary computer skills so that they can easily fit into the digital century with their digital skills.
Helium Health also makes provision for every challenge that could come up in the course of providing its service to clients.
“We spent a year and a half making mistakes and perfecting solutions for that kind of market, so we are providing the solutions, the network, devices, infrastructure, and every kind of challenge or limitation that could come up.”
So where is the money?
The Nigerian market is a very unique and interesting one where solutions have been tailored to the market. Introducing a technology like Helium Health has its challenges especially when it comes to getting businesses to part with their money.
Tito explained in the show that the company uses a flexible model adapting several payment patters to suit its clients.
There is the subscription-based model for the private sector, where the institution has to pay a fixed sum for a patient per year. This practical model saves them from parting with a lump sum immediately but still allows them enjoy the benefits of the platform, only paying for as many patients as they have. Under this plan, they do not have to renew that subscription fee until the patient shows up the next year.
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There are however those institutions that would not want to be bothered with making additional payments every time they have a new patient, and so they opt for a one-time annual license fee which covers all patients (irrespective of the number) throughout the year, until the next year where they have to renew the license fee.
It is a flexible structure where institutions just have to opt for the plans that suit them at the time.