How a Digital Platform Is Paving the Way for Health-tech in Pakistan

Jul 24, 2019 10:00 AM ET

By Nida Shehzad, lead for digital and innovation at Sehat Kahani

Pakistan produces thousands of, mainly female, doctors, every year, yet 42% of the population have no connection with healthcare. A dynamic medical duo has come up with a hi-tech solution

Habiba, a mother of four beautiful daughters, with a fifth one on the way, walks down the mountains of Mansehra, in northern Pakistan, to visit the nearest doctor 10 miles (16km) away. In her second trimester, Habiba has been having continuous episodes of abdominal pain, which has led to concerns for the health of her unborn child.

The Doctorni sahiba (female doctor) sits in a small, shabby dispensary. She’s a pharmacist by degree and respected in the community. She does not have adequate supplies at her disposal, is practising a profession that is not really her domain, but still believes she is helping these women – because where else will they go?

This is a familiar scenario in Pakistan, where 51% of the population live below the poverty line and have limited or no access to quality primary care facilities. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in three women in Pakistan don’t see a doctor during their pregnancy, while one child in five does not get to see their fifth birthday. In a country of 200 million people, where thousands of doctors qualify every year, there’s only one doctor for every 1,200 patients. Why is this?

According to the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council (PMDC), 70% of the country’s medical students are women, yet only 23% of them go on to register as physicians when they graduate. The rest either go abroad or leave their careers mid-way to get married and start a family – “doctor brides”.

Dr Sara Saeed Khurram, co-founder and CEO of health-tech company Sehat Kahani, knows full well the social pressures that female medical graduates face in Pakistan. She said it was this, coupled with the lack of medical access for low-income women in Pakistan, which were the key motivators for starting the business.

“We knew this problem existed, and being at the receiving end of it, we knew we had to solve it,” said Saeed. “People suffer because there are no doctors available; especially females who cannot visit male doctors, nor can they frequently step out of their houses to travel miles to get treatment done. We had to bring these doctor brides back into the workforce.”

Sehat Kahani aims to utilise the untapped pool of female physicians and connect them with patients by tele-medicine. Its e-health clinics are a one-stop shop for residents living in low-income communities, offering nurse-assisted video consultations with a PMDC-certified online doctor, a visiting sonographer and ultrasound facility, and a visiting diagnostic service all under one roof.

Co-founder and chief operating officer Dr Iffat Zafar Aga says the company works to include women along its whole value chain: “Along with making healthcare accessible for all, the platform also enables financial inclusion of not only female physicians, but also numerous intermediary nurses and female health workers, enabling ample employment opportunities.

“Tele-medicine is a fairly new concept altogether. Even though it has existed in Pakistan, no one could sustain it. Making people accept tele-medicine as a legal practice wasn’t an easy ride. We’ve had our share of failures, but we’ve stayed resilient throughout. One thing we’re really thankful for is the people who supported and mentored us through this process.

“We now have 25 tele-medicine clinics across Pakistan: in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We have made an impact on one million lives through our clinics and health education projects, and with the launch of the Sehat Kahani app we hope this only grows.”

The app is another feather in the cap for the dynamic duo, targeting the 42% of Pakistan’s population that fails to receive health coverage. Through the launch of the app and a network of 1,500 doctors, Saeed and Zafar have expanded their customer base to include middle- and high-income market segments.

Saeed believes the app, which can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone, can change the face of healthcare in Pakistan: “It’s not only mobile friendly, but can also be used on laptops and tablets. It is a holistic digital-health solution that enables individuals to access primary healthcare services online through efficient virtual consultations in less than three clicks. People will not have to stand in long queues or wait for hours to connect with their doctors. Our service is available 24/7 for anyone who wants to access it.”

The app allows a patient to record their health history, chat, or conduct an audio/video consultation with an available network of qualified doctors. Clients can also obtain a prescription and are provided with at-home pharmacy delivery and lab tests to make it more convenient for people who work hard to make ends meet for their families.

Sehat Kahani has been a part of the United Nations Development Programme’s Business Call to Action for two years now, with the collective aim of transforming how the healthcare industry is tackling problems in Pakistan, and achieving various sustainable development goals in the process. By diversifying its operations into new markets and creating more employment opportunities, we envision that Sehat Kahani will impact more than 15m lives in the next five years.

This article first appeared in Business Call to Action's Guardian Lab, Improving Lives through Business Innovation