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Winner Spotlight: Health-E-Net Gives Rural Citizens Access to Medical Specialists

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Citizens in remote areas of the world no longer have to be cut off from medical care. Health-E-Net, a Nairobi-based startup, is giving patients access to specialist physicians from across the globe digitally. It’s like telemedicine geared toward second opinions on medical conditions such as epilepsy and cancer.

Health-E-Net won the health category at the Nairobi Challenge Cup competition and will now advance to the Challenge Festival in May. Following the competition, Founder Pratap Kumar, who is a doctor and a scientist, broke down the problems surrounding remote medicine.

What exactly is the healthcare deficiency you’re tackling?

There’s a big disparity in access to quality health care, especially access to specialists. So a lot of development in healthcare focuses on infectious disease, reproductive health and the big problems, like malaria and HIV. What is ignored—and what the really big problem is—is the issue of diabetes, mental health cases, separate things like epilepsy. Simple but effective treatment is hard to get in a rural area.

One of the other problems we’re trying to match with this is remote doctors. It’s very difficult for doctors without access to patients’ records or without a connection to the local healthcare system to help rural patients.

So that’s really how HealthEnet started—to connect these two gaps. We thought we could bring these two together in a solution that’s actually sustainable.

Take me through a typical use case if I’m living in a remote area. What can you do for me?

Let’s take an example of cervical cancer. By the time people go to a hospital with cervical cancer, it’s very late. But when you ask patients when they were diagnosed, 60 percent of them say it was a few years ago. They didn’t feel the urgency or the need to seek care, and they didn’t know where to go. So there are lots of barriers to stop them from getting care at the right time.

What we can do is get patients who have been diagnosed or screened for cancer a consultation with a specialists at almost no cost. It allows you to discuss your case and your needs, so the specialists can tell you, ‘You need to go and get this type of scan or test done.’ And once the specialist gives the patient that information, we can say this is where you can go, what the costs are and the waiting times. So the patients can get really actionable information. They know they have to seek care and they can also find out where to seek that care. That’s really the kind of information that’s going to drive health-seeking behaviors.

Your business model is a two-pronged approach, because you have a non-profit and a for-profit side. How does that work?

The challenge is reaching these patients who are in rural areas. How do we get to them and get them to contact us? The only way to do this is through clinics in their communities. We train these clinics to conduct consultations. They can then charge the patient if they want it. It becomes a way for the clinics to expand their services. They might not have previously known how to treat for epilepsy before. Now they get support remotely to offer these services.

At the same time, the demand for such consultations is high from the wealthy, urban [set] from Nairobi who has been to the hospitals in the city. They want more information, they don’t trust their doctor, they think there might be other options. These are the patients we charge market rates and give them the same access to the specialists. The money that we raise from them goes toward these rural clinics.

This all works because you’re able to have the specialists act as volunteers and donate their time. Who are these specialists and how is that you were able to get them to do this on a voluntary basis?

The reality is every year lots of doctors go travel on their own expense to other countries and provide counseling and surgical services at their own cost. So these medical camps and volunteer services happen anyway. What I’m trying to do is make it easier for large numbers of doctors to do the same type of work without expense or effort on their part.

We ask them to give us two hours of their time every month. That way we can outsource this expertise. We have 50 cancer specialists, for example, and send out information to them if we have a case. One of them says, ‘I have time in the next 24 hours to look at this case and give my opinion.’

These doctors, some are retired specialists. There’s a head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. He’s a very busy man, but he’s also running a charity doing his type of work. This becomes an easy way for that doctor to expand his reach across the world.

Many of them want to have a global network. What we’re doing is to challenge them to use their knowledge in a way that’s very different from how they’re used to working. It’s a learning process on both sides for us and for them with how we can solve a case in a limited resource setting. This is how we can all come together and work on this.

During round 2 of the competition, your 5-minute pitch ended with a slide showing someone on top of Mount Kilimanjaro. The caption said it was a patient. Why did you want to end with that image?

Yes, the slide showed a patient of ours who got a consultation from us for migraine headaches. One of the questions he asked was, ‘Can I do something crazy and adventurous like this?’ And this consultation, the time he had with the specialists, empowered him to say ‘Yes, I know what I have to be worried about and careful about. I can still go and climb Kilimanjaro. I can take my medications and not worry about altitude sickness.’

So it’s very empowering for patients. It highlights the power of the venture. We can empower patients to a healthier state.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…