The way in which individuals are diagnosed and obtain their prescription medications is changing worldwide. A sector once firmly rooted in physical doctors’ rooms and pharmacies is gradually evolving to embrace a digital experience with home delivery, facilitated by an expanding, venture-supported landscape of health tech startups. This trend is equally evident in the developing nations of Africa, where new technologies and e-commerce business models are driving disruption in the pharmaceutical industry.

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Tapping into e-commerce business models for affordable and accessible healthcare

E-commerce has the potential to address challenges in Africa’s healthcare sector by making quality care more affordable and accessible. Several African countries and health tech startups are already exploring ways to reduce pharmaceutical expenses as part of healthcare provision. Disruptive e-commerce business models can play an important role in revolutionizing healthcare delivery across the continent.

Technological Drivers of Change

The pharmaceutical industry of the future will probably look very different than it does today with several technologies enabling the disruption:

Telehealth

Telehealth has been around in various forms for years, but several recent changes have given it a boost. Today, smartphones are everywhere, they’re more affordable, and they generate a lot of data. Additionally, the introduction of 5G and major advancements in augmented and virtual reality have greatly enhanced telehealth services. The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a role, causing a surge in virtual care and online medical appointments.

Take Waspito as an example. This platform, active in Cameroon and Cote d’Ivoire, allows patients to find, book, and access medical consultations and lab services online as well as get electronic prescriptions. Waspito also helps life and medical insurance companies offer digital products. The platform uses advanced technology to turn primary healthcare services and insurance processes digital, connecting patients to quality doctors, healthcare providers, pharmacies, and insurers through a user-friendly mobile platform.

Imaging and Diagnostics

Many African countries face challenges due to limited laboratory facilities, imaging tools, and a shortage of pathologists and radiologists. However, innovations are making a difference. New techniques in molecular diagnostics, microfluidics, and artificial intelligence are leading to the development of point-of-care diagnostic solutions. These advancements mean that various high-quality imaging and diagnostic tests can now be conducted on smaller devices, like smartphones, allowing patients to be tested quickly and conveniently.

A Nigerian startup, MDaaS, is an example of a disruptive startup that establishes modern, tech-savvy diagnostic centers in communities that lack adequate clinical services. MDaaS offers a range of services, including imaging, cardiac testing, pathology, and health monitoring. Recognizing that diagnostics is a crucial first step in healthcare, MDaaS uses technology to connect various healthcare providers. This ensures that patients receive timely and effective care decisions.

Automated Pharmacy Dispensing Units (PDU)

Pharmacy Dispensing Units (PDUs) are like ATMs for medication, allowing patients to get their repeat prescriptions quickly and without needing to consult a pharmacist first. These units use a combination of electronic, robotic, and cloud-based technologies to select, dispense, and label medications directly for patients. Typically, they feature an easy-to-use touchscreen and sometimes even offer two-way video interactions similar to Skype. This means patients can receive advice on how to take their medication and learn about possible side effects before it is dispensed.

In South Africa, Right ePharmacy operates several of these automated dispensing units within pharmacies. By March 2020, they had already dispensed over 122,167,49 prescriptions through this convenient and innovative system.

Big Data Analytics

With more healthcare companies adopting electronic health records and the widespread use of health-related biosensors, such as those in mobile phones, there’s a surge in health data generation. Intel predicts that by 2020, 1.7 megabytes of data will be generated per person every second. Analyzing this data can lead to earlier disease diagnoses and shift the focus toward preventative care. This shift can lead to cost savings and, more importantly, better patient health outcomes.

An everyday example of data use is tracking daily exercise. Analyzing this data can help manage chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension and even influence health insurance premiums. South Africa’s Discovery Health is at the forefront of this approach with its acclaimed Vitality program.

5G Technology

As feature phones evolved into smartphones, networks have evolved alongside them. Key advantages of 5G mobile technology are the ability to transmit data with lower latency and higher reliability. The GSMA (a global trade organization for mobile operators) estimates that seven African countries, including South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, will have 5G by 2025. However, 5G is expected to account for only 3% of mobile data and will likely be used by enterprises and public institutions rather than consumers in the short term.   

Blockchain technology

The most promising use case for blockchain technology within healthcare is securing patient data. By creating an unchangeable, decentralized, and transparent record of all patient data, blockchain technology could potentially ensure that information is securely shared among patients, doctors, and healthcare providers. 

Enrolling patients, sharing data, and protecting data privacy are significant challenges in clinical trial studies. Recently, blockchain technology has become a focus of interest among many researchers and institutions. Blockchain, a cutting-edge distributed ledger technology, holds great potential to tackle these issues. It can make clinical research more transparent and help build public trust in a fair and open manner.

Another application of blockchain technology in healthcare is ensuring drug authenticity and proper distribution. By tracking and tracing drugs, products, and medical devices throughout the supply chain, a blockchain can help reduce fraud and the circulation of counterfeit drugs. This technology serves as a reliable source for tracking products at every stage of the supply chain.

Digital Addressing

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development emphasizes in an e-commerce index report that reliable postal services are crucial for online transactions. For e-commerce products and services to reach their intended recipients, there must be an efficient and precise system for property and postal addressing. This system should be able to identify and pinpoint each individual or organization for the secure delivery of healthcare products. The Nigerian Postal Service has observed that having a dependable national addressing system can positively affect various aspects of society, including economic growth, social development, poverty reduction, postal services, emergency response, national security, road safety, quality of life, housing, spatial development, and transportation.

While these technologies seem promising, the timeline for widespread disruption and adoption depends on factors like the regulatory environment, consumer tech adoption, and investment allocation. Innovating in healthcare can be challenging due to regulatory hurdles and slower traction as in other verticals such as fintech. However, the digital transformation in the pharmaceutical sector is creating favorable conditions for innovation and corporate investment into future capabilities aligned with long-term strategic goals.

A corporate VC partner can provide valuable insights and guidance on the disruptive potential of technologies within specific verticals and service areas and the correct timing to invest in an African market. 

Contact Newtown Partners to discuss your innovation goals, a seasoned partner for corporates navigating the African VC investment landscape. 

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