While a visit to the doctor is never the most pleasant experience, having to wait for hours and days to see one only makes it worse. Why not consult a doctor over the phone?
That was the idea behind babylon Health, babyl’s parent company created in London in 2014.
“It’s about revolutionising the way healthcare is provided, and giving a patient quick access to a doctor,” explains Dr Shivon Byamukama, Deputy CEO of babyl Rwanda. “In the end, what you need is a doctor’s brain, not the brick and mortar that comes with a hospital.”
The initiative has been such a success in the UK that the company is now working with the National Health Service (NHS), the UK’s healthcare system.
“Our goal is to provide affordable and accessible healthcare to everyone on earth,” Shivon says.
babyl’s first venture outside the UK is in Rwanda, where it started operations in the second half of 2016. According to the Deputy CEO, choosing Rwanda as the first emerging market was deliberate.
“Rwanda is conducive for business, has zero tolerance to corruption, it’s focused on innovation and digitalisation of services – it’s a very progressive country, driven by the same ideas that underlie babyl,” she remarks. “We want to make Rwanda the Head Quarters of our operations in Africa, and I think it was a brilliant decision to come here.”
Yet to implement babyl’s system in Rwanda, some fundamental changes needed to be made. In the UK, where the majority of users have smart phones, babyl’s services can be accessed through an app that one can download on the apple store or the play store for android phones; in Rwanda, where the majority of users have feature phones, babyl developed a USSD version of the platform allowing people to book appointments and speaking to a doctor on their phone.
The basics remain the same, though. To get access to babyl’s services, you first need to register by dialling *811#, you will be prompted to input your National ID number which will be cross-checked with the National Identification Agency (NIDA) in a matter of seconds.
The interface will have a number of options including “book an appointment”. Once you book an appointment, you get an SMS letting you know what time your appointment will take place. At the agreed time, you will receive a call from a trained medical professional who will seek to understand your condition.
Based on the initial consultation, the nurse will either, give you medical advice, book you an appointment to speak to a doctor or refer you to a clinic or hospital. This process is repeated whenever you have a health issue and book an appointment.
If one is scheduled to speak to a doctor, at the specified time, the patient will receive a call from the doctor who will consult with the patient as you would in a physical hospital or clinic. The doctor will do one of four things: consult with the patient and give advice, order some laboratory tests, prescribe medicines, or simply refer the patient to a hospital for some conditions that are not suitable for digital medicine, e.g. accidents.
babyl works with a number of pharmacies and laboratories throughout the country. If a babyl doctor prescribes medicine or laboratory works, they will generally ask the patient their location and inform them of the nearest laboratories or pharmacies they can visit.
All the patient receives is a code on their mobile phone. But once they visit a babyl- linked pharmacy/ laboratory, the patient prescription will be on the laboratory/ pharmacy portal and the patient will receive their tests/ medicines as they would, had they brought a prescription form from a physical clinic/ hospital.
babyl recently signed agreements with the Ministry of Health, Rwanda Social Security Board-RSSB (Mutuelle and RAMA )health insurance schemes, where the insurance affiliates can be covered by the insurance company for both laboratory works and prescriptions.
“We have had brilliant uptake and are very excited,” Shivon says. “In the one year we have operated in Rwanda, we have registered 750,000 registrations and 135,000 consultations. The uptake has been from people all around the country and all demographic groups. This shows that Rwanda and Rwandans are ready for digital transformation and that there is need for our services. We attribute our success to the service offering:- an easy and convenient way to access healthcare”
It is not just the patients who are enthusiastic, the stakeholders have been supportive too.
“The Government has been really supportive. We have been approved by the Ministry of Health and have signed an MOU with them which allows babyl to operate our artificial intelligence chatbot in Health Posts and Health Centres. We also have agreements with RSSB that allow their client base to access prescriptions and laboratory tests covered by RSSB” Shivon points out.
“We have also received a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to roll out the system to the entire population and fund 350,000 consultations of mutuelle patients. This is a huge recognition from a major donor,” the Deputy CEO notes, adding that such endorsements are a testament to babyl’s contribution to Rwanda’s healthcare system.
We are introducing our artificial intelligence chatbot in our call centre, Health Posts and Health Centres in 2018.
“It is really an exciting time for Rwanda which will be the first country outside the UK to embrace our artificial intelligence chatbot. Our vision is to make it available to everyone on earth allowing people to take charge of their healthcare.” Shivon explains. “It has been proven in the UK that AI is actually more accurate in medical triage than doctors.”
As for the future, babyl’s first objective is to roll out the system everywhere in Rwanda. The next step is to expand its operations, first in the region and on the African continent.
“We will be expanding to six other countries globally in the next two years.”
babyl is well on its way to revolutionise the way healthcare is accessed and, as they envisage, provide it to everyone on earth.