Digital health solutions have proven an effective and even vital supplement to in-person care, improving patient treatment and strengthening back-end health systems.
Digital tools and services amplify healthcare quality and access in myriad ways—whether by enabling people in remote areas to access primary or specialty care or by improving health supply chain visibility to ensure access to life-saving products. The demand for digital health has only accelerated in the age of COVID-19.
To create a digital health solution that lasts, you should carefully consider how the business model underpinning your innovation enables long-term sustainability.
Successfully launching a sustainable digital health business model requires careful planning and foresight. Such models must reflect the context in which they operate, they must incorporate user needs and preferences, and they must comply with government regulations and relevant existing infrastructure.
Through our work on the Inclusive Innovation Exchange (IIE) and on projects that explore digital innovation in health, fair labor, water management, supply chain traceability, and market access, we’ve distilled a range of best practices for designing inclusive business models for digital solutions.
Best Practices for Digital Health Business Models
With a focus on health, here are four key tenets for developing digital health business models in emerging markets.
1. Know the Impact You Want to Create
There are three key things you need to know before you start thinking about digital health business models:
- First, what impact or value are you trying to create? (Or, what problem for the end-user do you ultimately seek to solve?)
- Second, who does this solution benefit or target? (Remember that the audience that your solution benefits may not be the one who pays for it—this will come up again in our final point, below.)
- Third, you should be able to articulate the unique value proposition that will set your solution apart. What makes it special, in the eyes of your target audience and in the context of the existing market?
In many ways, this comes down to vision: Having one and making sure it’s a consistent guide in business model design and implementation. As Gregory Rockson—co-founder and CEO of the innovative health social enterprise mPharma—said in Resonance’s IIE discussion on global health innovation:
“It’s okay not knowing how to get somewhere. What’s most important is to have a north star. We always had a north star... As we build, we’re looking at the signals, trends, and influences as the next step to help us get to the north star that we created.”
Rockson’s north star at mPharma is to create access to safe and affordable medicine for African patients. But when the company was a small startup, they didn’t have the infrastructure to reach patients directly. Instead, they concentrated on existing infrastructure—pharmacies—and developed digital models to improve the efficiency of drug delivery.
Four years later, mPharma was large enough to develop direct relationships with patients to better achieve their end goal of access to medicine for all. Staying focused on this vision has enabled the company to lower the cost of medicine in eight Sub-Saharan countries.
2. Partner with Others to Refine Your Digital Health Business Model
Cross-sector collaboration between companies, foundations, governments, and NGOs presents new ways of thinking about your digital business model. That’s especially true for global health organizations, where governments and donors play vital roles in delivering care.
In our IIE discussion on expanding access through digital health, Dr. Mohamed Aburawi emphasized the importance of local and global partners.
By collaborating with governments and other stakeholders, “there’s incredible leverage that you get as a person or an entity that’s just starting and you’re plugging into an existing system,” he said.
As founder of Speetar, a telemedicine and cloud-based electronic health records company, Aburawi built relationships to help him navigate regulation and funding barriers.
For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Speetar assisted the Libyan government with outreach and provided data that helped them stretch their resources. The relationship allowed Speetar to scale more efficiently and has since become their template for expanding into other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
3. Design with End-Users in Mind
It can be tempting to chase new tech that holds the promise to improve patient care. But rather than picking a solution and trying to “make it work” for consumers, start with the users themselves.
Seek out your target audience—whether patients, providers, community health workers, or others—and take the time to get to know what they’re up against. Use their words and perspectives to guide the design process to meet their needs and suit their preferred methods of interaction.
During our discussion on designing for better healthcare in emerging markets, Tito Ovia spoke about the role of design in the success of her Nigerian-based company, Helium Health.
“At the heart of our company, we thought: how do we design products fit for a group of people... [who] might have never used a computer in their life?” “And, for us, design was the only way to be able to ensure that we capture that audience,” she said.
Engaging with your end-users takes time and planning, but this investment will get you closer to creating a product that solves a true challenge for patients or providers.
4. Be Clear on Who Will Pay for Your Service
Some digital health solutions are donor-funded while others charge consumers directly. Most fall somewhere in between, and some leverage different payment models for different types of consumers.
For instance, at Rescue.co in Kenya, Caitlin Dolkart’s team is working to build Africa’s first integrated emergency response system, using an online dispatch system to efficiently direct ambulance operators to people in need and to ensure they then deliver them to hospitals that can provide the needed care. They initially focused their emergency assistance service in urban areas like Nairobi, with subscription models for families and businesses. But as they grew to reach lower-income families in more rural and peri-urban areas, they partnered with NGOs, donors, and the government to help subsidize and extend their services.
Think critically about who pays for your product. Whether patients, insurance, Ministries of Health, or donors pay for your product, ensure that you build a financing model that is sustainable and scalable, if you’re aiming to expand your impact.
The Bottom Line On Digital Health Business Models
From design through payment structures, digital health models in emerging markets are more effective when they integrate the needs of end-users and tap the potential of partnerships.
These tenets have shaped Resonance’s approach to developing and implementing more inclusive, sustainable business models for clients in emerging markets worldwide. As you explore digital health models, we welcome you to reach out with questions and thoughts.