What can be done to provide all Africans with easy and equal access to quality healthcare? That is the question raised by Beninese doctor Vèna Arielle Ahouansou, who when she was merely 25 created an ambitious new app called Kea Medicals. As the head of her start-up with the same name, she currently leads a team of 15 young professionals covering a wide range of skills, doctors, IT technicians, developers, communication and marketing specialists, with an average age of 25.
The idea was born out of a painful real-life experience. Vèna Arielle Ahouansou tells us how, when she was still a trainee doctor at a health centre in Benin, she had attended to a young woman called Charlotte, who had recently given birth to twins. “Sadly, the delivery was complicated by a haemorrhage. The young mother urgently needed a blood transfusion, for which her blood group had to be checked. Although Charlotte had already been for two check-ups in the past, the information was nowhere to be found. Ten precious minutes were wasted in the process of redoing the test to find out her blood group. It was too late, the minutes lost proved fatal,” she recalls.
Deeply marked by the fate of this patient, in October 2016, Vèna Arielle Ahouansou decided to develop a system, with an investment of US$1,000, that would facilitate access to patient data, enabling patients to be processed faster in an emergency.
Her start-up currently provides a range of services, including the possibility of consulting a patient’s records online and the creation of a Universal Medical Identity (UMI), a sort of individual data file on each patient.
How does it work? Patients are prompted to create an account on the platform, by providing basic information such as their identity, known allergies, chronic illnesses, blood type, etc. Once registered, each patient receives an individual UMI signature in the form of a QR barcode. This barcode can be printed on different media and devices: wristbands, patches, cards and other portable devices. The doctor only has to scan the patient’s QR code to access his or her entire medical history within a matter of seconds. No more time wasted.
“Instead of providing care to perhaps a hundred or so patients a day within the confines of a hospital, I hope [as part of a network of doctors] to be able to save the lives of millions of patients across Africa. Thanks to Kea Medicals, we are no longer just helpless onlookers in a road accident but can swiftly scan the casualty’s QR code and access his or her identity, to quickly inform the family or hospital,” says Vèna Arielle Ahouansou, who named her app KEA as a tribute to her father, Karl Emmanuel Ahouansou.
Benin’s e-health ambitions
Despite the efforts of political officials and healthcare workers in Benin, the country’s hospital system is still by no means up to scratch. It continues to be plagued with shortages in terms of both human and technical resources, and patients are not always satisfied with the level of care they receive, especially in public health facilities.
Just a moment spent with patients is very telling. One morning, at the entrance of the emergency ward of one of these centres, a woman named Sonia, her baby girl loosely tied to her back, can be heard wailing with grief. The words do not come easy, but from the depths of her grief-stricken heart, she laments: “She’s dead.” Her mother had just passed away following a heart attack that had lasted several hours because she had not been seen to quickly enough, partly due to the shortage of doctors. “We arrived at the hospital at 5 a.m. and it was already 10 a.m. by the time they took us in, after a great deal of time wasted toing and froing. Had the admissions desk acted faster, my mother would still be alive,” said Sonia, drained and disorientated. Many other patients suffer the same fate, as many are poor and cannot afford to pay for private care.
A wave of reform seems to have been sweeping across Benin for some time now, seeking to tackle these difficulties. The government of Benin appears determined to improve the health and social conditions of the Beninese people. Between 2012 and 2017, Benin, with the support of the World Bank, implemented a wide-ranging project aimed at enhancing the performance of the healthcare system. Its aims include improving the performance of healthcare centres through Results-Based Financing (RBF) and improved access to healthcare funding for the poor via the Fonds Sanitaire des Indigents.
The project has been put in place in five health zones and serves 104 major health centres, 66 satellite centres, five area hospitals and five district teams. It has helped boost staff morale, at the same time as improving the technical capacities of the centres covered by the project. In 2008, Benin also launched the Universal Health Insurance System or RAMU (Régime d’Assurance Maladie Universelle). This social health coverage scheme is aimed at protecting the entire Beninese population against the risk of disease and its consequences.
Benin is intent on establishing an efficient healthcare system that is accessible to all sectors of society by the year 2025. Developing its human resource and e-health capacities through information technology features prominently in the government’s action programme. This is where Kea Medicals is able to find the space to develop and demonstrate its full potential.
The Kea Medicals start-up has launched an app under the same name (Kea Medicals), which reduces the distance between the patient and the doctor. Doctors specialised in different fields are connected through a network, enabling them to provide patients with the medical expertise they require, regardless of their location. Some 58,300 patients and 1800 healthcare professionals are currently using Kea Medicals in a number of African countries, including Benin, Congo, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Niger. A physical distribution network has been launched in partnership with over 30 pharmacies and 13 hospitals in Benin and is currently in its pilot phase.
Asked how she manages to gain the trust of her partners, Arielle answers: “It is just about showcasing the potential that Kea Medicals offers and highlighting its successes to those who are sceptical. It is not always easy, given that most are not yet acquainted with these information and communication technologies, but that doesn’t stop us.”
On the whole, Kea Medicals has made a positive impression on doctors and patients alike. Dr Boris Adjovi, interviewed at a clinic in Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin, sees Kea Medicals as a ground-breaking tool for overcoming difficulties linked with access to patients’ medical records, which are not always readily available. “In this respect, the doctor’s task is greatly facilitated,” he says. The satisfaction also shows on the patients’ faces.
“Since I started using Kea Medicals a few months ago, less time is wasted going into providing detailed explanations to the doctors and they are quicker at taking care of me,” says Diane, a patient attending a check-up.
Kea Medicals has, in fact, won several awards for its innovative approach, such as the FUTUR E.S in Africa Prize for the most innovative project with the highest societal impact in Africa. Thirty other start-ups from a range of countries including Cameroon, South Africa and Kenya reached the final stage of this competition held in Morocco in 2018. Vèna Arielle Ahouansou is also the winner of the 2018 Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Award and the 2017 Women In Africa Entrepreneur Club award, and has been ranked among the Top 20most inspirational women from Africa. The Ghana-based Moremi initiative has also ranked her among Africa’s 25 most influential women under the age of 25.