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Wella Health: Charting course for digital health startups in Nigeria

In Nigeria, very few professionals enjoy job security like doctors. This is why it is not every day that you meet someone no longer thrilled by the intrigues of cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the emergency room or the beautiful sights of couples hugging their newborn baby.

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It is not easy to leave the hospital environment to become an entrepreneur, armed with nothing but an idea and hoping to attract enthusiastic users and endear investors with big bucks.

This is exactly what Ikpeme Neto did when he took off his ward coat, boxed his stethoscope, bought a one-way ticket to Nigeria and decided to venture into digital health — an area which McKinsey & Co said is worth about US$80-billion.

“If we take Nigeria as 20% of Africa, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that the bulk of that value would be from Nigeria,” Neto said. I then asked Neto how much of the market he wants to take. “All of it I hope,” was his response, although he said their major focus is to create value that impacts the life of every African and helping them stay well.

Leaving medicine

He admitted he didn’t make the decision to switch from medicine to entrepreneurship easily; it was born out of frustration.

Working in Australasia, Neto’s family back in Nigeria was battling chronic diseases. “The frustrations came to the fore for me when I tried to find a particular specialist for a member of my family,” he tells Ventureburn. “There was no central location I could go to find useful information. I contacted several institutions but the best they could give was an educated guess. It thus meant multiple appointments with different [healthcare] providers at various locations. The number of things to keep track of continued to pile up and so all the scanning, emailing and phone calls became too cumbersome hence the reason for my transition from clinical medicine to digital health.”

Founder of Wella Health Ikpeme Neto
This was when he founded Wella Health — a Nigeria-based digital health startup that has been selected as one of the semi-finalists for the global GIST initiative’s technological innovation competition.

Through his personal experience, he said it dawned on him that the average Nigerian and by extension, African patients, are dealing with frustrations in order to get the healthcare they deserve.

To tackle this challenge, he said he considered a few options. It became obvious that the power of technology could be used to overcome a lot of the inconveniences and quality gaps that exist in African health systems.

“In fact one of the functions we will build into our system is the ability for diaspora specialists to consult back at home in conjunction with their local colleagues while still being in their respective locations,” he said.

Introducing Wella Health

Wella Health is a platform that helps track, manage and coordinate care for users and providers of healthcare. It aims to solve the problem of fragmented care particularly for people with chronic disease.

“For our users we take their health records and data and centralise it for them in the cloud. We then use that data to provide personalised insights into better disease management and prevention of complications,” he said.

Current users store their own medical records on the platform. They are also able to log in and track specific disease-related data such as blood pressure, blood sugar readings, kidney profiles and so on. He elaborates:

Currently most people are uploading electronic versions from their computers or mobile devices. We are also able to scan and upload for them. We have just also begun partnerships with some local labs to upload their results to our system so that patients are able to receive it electronically. Ultimately the patient won’t have to do anything themselves other than indicate they are on our platform and the provider is able to see all results and records and then add on whatever the outcome of the consultation is.

He said they are in the process of formalising the partnerships though he’s not at liberty to name who. “We are always eager to work with any interested facilities.” According to him, the company’s unique selling point is its ability to allow individuals to always be on top of their health conveniently. “We like to think that we help people stay well,” he said.

Digital health in Nigeria

As far as digital health is concerned, Nigeria is so far behind considering the fact that so many things are still done manually.

“In fact, we have had to modify our systems to allow for the low-tech environment we are operating in. Compare this to the system I worked in previously in Australasia where most things were digital from our health records to our lab results and even prescriptions.”

He explains that most health professionals are resistant to change and that the learning curve associated with new technologies is a challenge.

“So the tech being used has to be user friendly so that even the technophobe isn’t put off. There has to be minimal use of text input as people don’t type well. Rather employ more clicks and yes/no type options,” the founder said. “Most important is getting user feedback and then iterating appropriately. In the future when people are more tech-literate, we can start to employ more sophisticated technology and methods.”

When asked how digital health transforms into good prognosis for patients, he said that “as far as rural health goes, we need to first provide the basics. Tech cannot smooth over the pervasive lack of basic rural services in most places.”

The fact that there are numerous problems in Nigeria’s healthcare industry means that there is a lot of potential for tech.

“Any committed entrepreneur with passion will make ultimately money in virtually any digital health endeavour. Not so sure it will be done easily though,” he cautioned. “It is currently hard to tell but opportunities lie everywhere. I invite other entrepreneurs to join me and dig for the goldmines.”

Image by Jason Howie via Flickr

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