South Africa’s healthcare sector is responsible for the first heart transplant, the first caesarean in Africa, the invention of the CAT scan, the cataract ‘retinal cryoprobe’ innovation and the Smartlock safety syringe. Now we have another: an online aggregator called the African Healthcare Portal. With it we hope to unlock the potential of the African healthcare sector as a unified entity.

For years, and despite the financial strain it puts on patients and practitioners, African governments have maintained a siloed, country-specific approach to healthcare which has failed to leverage a massive demographic dividend across the continent.

Refreshingly, the tide has turned and 2018 is proving to be a significant year for Africa. With the advent of the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement (ACFTAA) and steady progress being made towards meeting the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, of which healthcare is number three, Africa seems to be on the cusp of a new era.   

Set against this background, the AHP is poised to serve as Africa’s premier healthcare corridor for the trade of goods, services, skills and information. The portal aims to promote continent-wide research initiatives, knowledge and skills transfer as well as supply chain transparency; critical to this task is getting individuals to talk to each other in order to kick-start the process of collaboration on a grand scale. Collaboration has always existed within the African healthcare space, but in silos. This is what differentiates the AHP: It aims to consolidate every aspect of healthcare across the entire continent. The ultimate beneficiary of this endeavour will inevitably be patients. 

What is the AHP?

The best way to get your head around the AHP is to think of it as a healthcare-specific amalgamation of Facebook, LinkedIn and Alibaba. Users in the healthcare value chain can sign up for free and engage with each other on a platform which is oriented toward solutionist thinking. Additional features to support this ideology include think-tanks, case study discussion rooms, research hubs, an education e-commerce store and buyer groups.

The AHP is a business-to-business portal aimed at supporting healthcare professionals and corporates alike, to better serve each other and their communities.

What is the business model?

Revenue will be generated through advertising, renting out online think-tanks and project management war rooms, and through administrative fees charged on the e-commerce store and buyer groups. The think-tanks serve to promote innovative product development unique to the African context, while the project management war rooms facilitate low-cost co-ordination of project activity across the continent. Additionally, with regulation and compliance in healthcare proving to be so complex across the various countries in Africa, being able to provide up-to-date information to parties interested in doing business in Africa is an important role that the AHP would like to support.

Since the audience is selected, targeted and industry specific, these features are expected to take on a gravitas beyond the social media-type model and would prove to be a valuable communications tool for buyers, suppliers and professionals alike.

Why do we need it?

In the past few months South Africa has seen notable legislative changes in the healthcare space, including the approval of the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill. While I believe that AHP exists outside this current debate, the NHI proposals will undoubtedly impact service providers across the sector. While the NHI will be hamstrung from the start due to a lack of administrative capacity and the absence of a robust taxpayer base, it does highlight the importance of ensuring access to quality healthcare for all, poor and rich alike.

However, unlike the NHI approach, I believe this can and should be addressed by improving efficiency and transparency, so money can be funnelled into providing proper, quality medical care and medicines, and not skimmed off the top by an inefficient and ineffective supply chain.

This is perfectly illustrated by an article carried on the website Nigeria HealthWatch which recently reported on a joint 2016 survey by the US Pharmacopeial Convention and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control to determine the quality of the drug oxytocin (administered to women after birth to reduce the frequency and fatality of post-partum haemorrhage). The study was sparked by the fact that, in 2015, 19% of global maternal deaths were in Nigeria. The results showed that 74.2% of the oxytocin samples in Nigeria failed lab quality evaluations, and 33.7% of tablets were found to be of sub-standard quality.

The proliferation of sub-standard drugs in Africa is a real problem and an indictment of the current supply chain practices. It is something I hope the AHP will begin to address, whether it’s getting all the small pharmacies or drug stores on board and educating them about counterfeit products, or empowering them to report incidents to the pharmaceutical body. Governments don’t have the resources to win this battle, so it’s vital to empower all the players in the sector, especially those who are customer facing.

The portal, therefore, has a huge procurement element. If you can get all the drug stores or pharmacists across Africa working together, then we’ve essentially aggregated the base of the pyramid.

An aggregated approach

Using the AHP it is possible to cut out some of the middle men and ensure greater price transparency. It’s in the last mile to the consumer that a plethora of mark-ups drive up the price of medication and is one of the reasons why sub-standard products can proliferate. But, by creating buying groups and buying transparency, this unfettered skimming off the top can be reduced. Aggregation is the first step.

Simplistically I’ve been told this approach sounds something like the Somali spaza shop model. It’s almost like forming a large association where everyone who joins has something to gain, be it talking to other doctors in my country, or supplying local businesses. We keep talking about the importance of cross-border trade and intra-African co-operation: well this is it.

What’s next?

This is just the start for this platform. We have bold plans, which include a futuristic telemedicine feature. It would allow, for example, a patient in Rwanda who needs an expert paediatric opinion to get in touch with an available professional anywhere in the world. There would obviously be a disclaimer to protect patient information, and we’d monitor that quite closely, but that’s the wonderful aspect of aggregation which is vital for the African healthcare context.

Another interesting potential is medical tourism, which also talks to the importance of intra-African trade. This is a new feature and is quite far advanced. For companies in this niche sector we offer advertising space and exposure to a broad audience, as well as the ability to engage directly with doctors and professionals. Egypt, for one, is seeing growth in this sector, as is Kenya, and South Africa has an established medical tourism industry with Cape Town’s dental tourism sector being particularly noteworthy.

In time, we’d also like to produce benchmark metrics, be it in pharmaceuticals, in the NPO sector or in medical tourism, so that we can get a sense of what standardised benchmarking means for Africa. Right now, this information simply doesn’t exist and having data of this depth would be a notable game changer.

In summary

While the commercial appeal of AHP lies in access to the attractive Africa-wide market, the underlying focus of the portal is to facilitate the upskilling of professionals on the continent, addressing wastage by cutting out the supply of sub-standard drugs in Africa, using the Internet to facilitate better healthcare standards and practices across the continent and, ultimately, creating a more transparent, fairer and more efficient healthcare sector for all.

There are a number of other portals which already exist in this sector, but in our view their myopic approach fails to take into account the power of an Africa-wide healthcare sector. With the African population already having eclipsed 1.2 billion people, the days of siloed structures and country-by-country strategies are over. The only way to bring quality healthcare to all Africans is by breaking down the walls which continue to drive up costs and create inefficiencies. I’m hopeful that the AHP community will do just this.

BOX

WHAT’S IN IT FOR BUSINESS?

·      Access to options – Supply chains in South Africa, and around the continent, are closed but AHP will showcase viable options and facilitate discussions around cost and quality expectations.

·      Access to markets – Smaller businesses stand to gain by grouping together. Smaller buying groups can order a shipment of medication once a quarter and bring this medication in at a fraction of the cost; disseminating the products between themselves.

·      Access to Africa – This is a vital ingredient since the size of the African market creates a large, viable customer base across borders.

·      Cost-saving – For small pharmaceutical companies or Africa-based suppliers the AHP obviates the need to set up offices across Africa. Simply rent a think-tank or a war room and connect with the right people in country.

·      Reaching out – Advertise through the portal at competitive costs.

·      Upskill your people – If staff members require training on a certain area then this could be run through the portal.

·      Connect – Ultimately the portal helps you to find the right people, at no cost, quickly.

·      Foster trust – Specifically in the NPO space there is a need for greater transparency and trust which can be facilitated by giving donors more information and control.

·      Share data – Gain access to African healthcare trends and insights, to possibly stimulate conversations, facilitate business decision-making or even influence policy development.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

·      African Healthcare Portal (AHP) is an online platform designed to aggregate all players within the African healthcare value chain onto a single digital community.

·      The aim of the portal is to consolidate the highly fragmented healthcare industry and streamline activity within the sector through connection, collaboration and knowledge sharing.

·      The portal also focuses on the non-profit organisations (NPOs) within the healthcare space which, according to the World Health Organization, have been unable to show a return-on-investment (ROI) for almost 40% of donor money. The AHP aims to assist both donor and NPOs alike to drive efficiency and improve ROI by improving communication and access to training programmes aimed at honing audit skills as well as monitoring and evaluation methodology.

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