By MACHARIA KAMAU
Health services provision is the next battle frontier for mobile firms as they seek new revenue streams to cushion against falling voice earnings.
Safaricom and Telkom Kenya have embedded health services in their product offering, a move the two firms expect will boost their bottom lines.
Rural population is the key target in this new offering that is administered through virtual clinics, attracting "modest" consultation fees. The mobile operators claim users will make huge savings on money spent on travel and logistics associated with hospital visits.
Safaricom has announced it would soon roll out a service enabling patients, especially in rural areas, access medical services with ease and affordably.
Dubbed Health Presence, the product will entail a ‘small clinic’ stationed in digital villages, where patients can consult doctors through video conferencing facilities.
The firm will also roll out a call-a-doctor service that will enable patients consult medics through their cell phones. For the service, Safaricom will provide a number that patients will call for consultations.
The company says calls to the number would be answered by medical professionals approved by the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board.
Telkom Kenya also announced the commencement of a similar service. The company will run a text-based and call-in medical service through France Telecom’s Orange Healthcare. The company’s chief executive, Mickael Ghossein, said the firm expects a million of its customers to use the tele-health service by end of the first year.
Safaricom’s Health Presence will be equipped with facilities to read a patient’s vital signs – including temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate. On the other end, the doctor on call will be able to read the vitals on a computer and together with the patient’s narrative, is able to give a diagnosis and prescription or refer the patient to a health clinic.
The e-health centres will be housed in digital villages set up by Safaricom. It has put up 800 digital villages and plans to put an additional 5,000 by end of this year.
Sylvia Mulinge, the general manager of Enterprise Business Unit at Safaricom, said the company plans to have a third of the digital villages providing health facilities within the first year.
"In the first year, we will have 30 per cent of the digital villages equipped with the health presence facility," she said.
"The project is meant to take affordable and quality health care to the common person. One should be able to consult a professional medical practitioner at under $2 (Sh168). This would in ordinary circumstances cost one in excess of Sh2, 000, when one factors in travel costs and other logistics."
Telkom Kenya’s Tele-health will be implemented in partnership with Text-to-Change – a Dutch non-governmental organisation that uses mobile telephony to raise awareness on health issue – and mPedigree – a pan Africa organisation fighting use of counterfeit drugs.
Ghossein said the services would also entail text-based and call-in consultation, where patients will speak to medical practitioners and get advice on their health conditions.
He added that the services will be affordably priced and focus on rural population, a strategy that seems a kin to that of Safaricom," he said.
Ghossein added that e-healthcare is part of the France Telecom’s strategy to Africa that will heavily focus on data as well as add-ons to retain subscribers.
The firm will replicate the success France Telecom’s Orange Healthcare in France. The health unit was established ten years ago and became a business unit in 2007.
Ghossein said France Telecom had ambitions to become the preferred telecoms partner in the field of e-health not only in Kenya but also 20 other markets Africa and Middle East where it has operations.
If successfully implemented in Kenya, e-health can significantly increase the doctor to patient ratio. Currently, doctors are overwhelmed by the number of patients they have to attend to, a move that played part in pushing up medical costs.