Innovators in low- and middle-income countries are changing the way health products are distributed through technology-enabled, asset-light delivery models. In light of the unprecedented tensions caused by COVID-19, these offerings have become more important than ever for ensuring unrestricted access to affordable, high quality health products in underserved markets. We spoke to two innovators working at the front lines of this crisis to better understand how private sector solutions might help overcome market failures and better meet the needs of end users in this rapidly evolving context. The interviews have been edited for concision and clarity.
Abimbola Adebakin is the CEO of Advantage Health Africa and the my-medicines.com service line. The digital platform offers tech-enabled services to an extensive network of pharmacies in Nigeria (including inventory management and stock financing options), and arranges for direct-to-consumer delivery of medication throughout the country.
Noah Perin is co-founder and CEO of VIA Global Health, a digital marketplace for medical equipment operating in several countries worldwide. This solution creates links between manufacturers and distributors in LMIC markets through a global purchasing platform intended to facilitate transactions and optimize delivery logistics.
Impact for Health: What is your company currently doing in response to the COVID-19 crisis? Abimbola, my-medicines.org: Our model [of direct-to-consumer delivery] has come more alive at this time. We are able to help find and deliver genuine affordable medicines to people who must self-isolate, respect the tenets of social distancing, and abide by a strict curfew. Our information support line also allows us to provide disease-related insights to those who need information on the right medicines to take or not to take. Among other things, we have worked on facilitating access to information for both consumers and providers. We have produced videos and graphics to reduce panic among consumers and guide them in access to medicines. We’ve also issued a concise Guidelines for Pharmacists and Healthcare Assistants to standardize care protocols and help ensure essential service providers remain protected while working in the frontlines. Noah, VIA Global Health: As a global marketplace for medical equipment targeting under-served markets, VIA Global Health has found itself supporting those on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic – sourcing affordable and critical medical devices, diagnostics and supplies; navigating the changing logistics landscape; and getting the word out to customers and beneficiaries that we can get what they need. VIA is fielding hundreds of requests a day for vents, thermometers, masks, etc. (product quote requests are up 500% and we have received requests from 26 different counties in the last 3 days alone). We have a team dedicated to identifying, verifying and sourcing as much of the materials as possible, and then getting it to where it is needed.
How do the solutions you offer complement public sector efforts at this time? Abimbola, my-medicines.org: We have joined a coalition of other healthcare tech solution providers to develop a Rapid Response platform. Through this platform, we are planning to identify 1000 potential patients on self-isolation and support them with telemedicine and delivery of medication coupled with a systematic follow up system. Hopefully, when self-administered tests are approved, we can coordinate distribution through this platform so that patients with symptoms don’t have to rely on visiting clinics in person.
What are the most critical challenges your company is facing with respect to the response? Abimbola, my-medicines.org: One of our main challenges is that we don’t warehouse medication and we have had to rely on a volatile medicines supply system. Prices of items have gone up astronomically over this period. Since we haven’t received external financing, we are using our working capital to invest in some basic items to stabilise prices and ensure affordability to our clients. Noah, VIA Global Health: Where we continue to struggle is reserving inventory, as very often by the time our buyers have arranged financing, availability, lead times and pricing have already changed. What the global community needs currently is for a revolving fund that would enable aggregators like VIA to secure inventory and ensure it is available for distribution to underserved markets everywhere.
Anything closing comments or reflections? Noah, VIA Global Health: As the pandemic increases its reach across the globe, we’ve been confronted with our greatest fear – the inequitable distribution of critical healthcare equipment and supplies – as the fragmented developing world competes for the same resources as the global North. We are now experiencing firsthand the uneven allocation of vital resources – with increased lead times, increasing prices and shrinking availability for those customers that can’t purchase large volumes and rapidly line up financing. Our immediate priority is thus to help our customers in underserved markets level the playing field and access critical supplies for the pandemic response.