Mobile phone could make doctors rendudant

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LAST week we looked at how disruptive innovation has and could continue to reconfigure the media industry in Zimbabwe.

The Human Capital Telescope with Brett Chulu

One area to which it appears disruptive innovation will spread is the health services sector, albeit as an unintended consequence.

In his October 23 Facebook post Econet boss Strive Masiyiwa states that in the next 10 years he wants people to test themselves for diseases using a mobile phone.

Masiyiwa wrote on Facebook: “One of the most exciting developments we are currently working on is a project we call the Econet Disease Surveillance Network. It is similar to our award-winning Energise the Chain project. Both these projects were not designed to generate income, but to show that we can use our business to help our communities”. Though according to Masiyiwa Econet is not planning to commercialise this social innovation, the unintended consequences of this project, if successful, will seed ideas for disrupting the health sector on a commercial business.

Masiyiwa’s social innovation is a simple idea really, albeit built on deep thinking. A nurse’s phone can be a doctor. In 10 years’ time, your phone will be your doctor. If anything, that sounds like a disruptive innovation.

A nurse in a remote rural area (or in an economically disadvantaged area) will take a blood sample obtained from pricking a patient’s finger and place it on a detection paper supplied by Econet. A colour change on the paper will be transmitted via a mobile network to an electronic database (presumably housed in a central server). That database will analyse the data sent from the clinic via a mobile phone. In a matter of seconds results of the diagnosis are relayed back to the clinic. According to Masiyiwa’s Facebook post, the system will be able to diagnose five diseases or conditions, namely: Malaria, HIV, Dengue, Influenza and Hepatitis B. That’s to be expected. A disruptive innovation starts with simple applications.
This development gives us an opportunity to discuss an aspect of disruptive innovation that I have not touched on in my many articles on disruptive innovation in this column. It is the concept of disrupting or commoditising expertise to lower a cost structure.
Commoditising expertise
Basic microeconomics tells us that highly-skilled health personnel such as doctors and specialist technicians will charge relatively high fees for their services. High fees to access health services exclude the masses. Simply, a disruptive innovation only works if it assists masses to do what they are already trying to do but cannot due to cost and/or lack of skill. I am not sure if they even want medical aid.

What Masiyiwa and his R&D team are brewing may disrupt health services, unintentionally though, due to ability to commoditise expertise.

The primary purpose of a disruptive innovation is to replace a high cost structure with a low cost structure so that a service that was once a preserve of few is made accessible to the excluded masses. According to disruptive innovation there are three levels of dealing with a problem in a service area such as health. The first level is problem-solving by trial and error.

For instance, a doctor may conduct a battery of tests to try and diagnose a health problem. They may have to make several prescriptions until the right one is found. Visiting this skilled individual with scarce skills comes with relatively huge expenses.

In short, at the problem-solving level, health service costs are relatively very high. The second-level is pattern-recognition. At this level, a trained technician will conduct a test and compare the results against an established standard. This means that a problem is quickly diagnosed, obviating the need for repeated visits.

At the pattern-recognition level, health service costs are relatively low due to lower opportunity costs. The third level is the routine diagnosis level. This can be carried out by a relatively less-skilled person. Typically, this involves use of standard test kits such as paper-based detection tests.

For instance, a nurse aid can dip a diagnostic paper into a sample of urine, look at the resulting colour change and interpret what that means.

At the routine diagnosis level, the costs of delivering a health service are relatively lower when compared to the problem-solving and pattern-recognition levels due to even much lower opportunity costs.

A disruptor will work to push health service delivery down from experts to the less-skilled through high-tech. That move simplifies a health-delivery cost structure. This is precisely what Masiyiwa’s innovation will do, though unintentionally. Technology will replace the need for a human expert to diagnose well-known diseases, especially, the more common and deadly ones in the developing world context.

Here is a poser; what will happen to the health sector when my grandmother begins to use her mobile phone as a doctor? What if more and more diseases become diagnosable over a mobile phone? Answer; disruption.

Reflect on it
A social innovation by a Zimbabwean could be the pointer to the possibility of disrupting expensive health services, addressing a long-standing headache for business strategists.

Chulu is a strategic HR consultant pioneering innovative HR practices in both listed and unlisted companies. — brettchulu@consultant.com

5 thoughts on “Mobile phone could make doctors rendudant”

  1. Chen Chikezha says:

    Lets mwana wevhu anoziva Mwari, may you continue to be a shinning example in a dark room.

  2. chiremba says:

    the article is totally misleading.this technology does not make doctors redundant at all but will be complementary instead. it’s already being used in developed countries to link remote rural health centres with doctors,specialists,imaging centres etc that are otherwise located in cities.These Electronic Health Systems are good in that they use real time thus doing away with delays in diagnosis and treatment of patients in resource limited settings. doctors’ input will always be a necessity in deciding individualised patient management of any disease. ndatenda.

  3. Author says:

    Hi Chiremba
    It seems you totally misinterpreted this article. The thrust of this article is not about replacing doctors. Disruptive innovation allows some aspects that could be done only by doctors to be done by less-skilled people. This contributes towards lowering overall health care costs. Doctors will be released to do more complex diagnostic cases. Please re-read with this in mind.

    1. chiremba says:

      point well taken

      1. Author says:

        Your mature response in this debate is refreshing. I wish as a people we could engage issues maturely.

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