We want to restore trust to Nigerian healthcare system—Odulana
Debo Odulana is a medical doctor and founder of Doctoora, a platform where foreign and local based practitioners deliver services across multiple locations in Nigeria without incurring setup costs. Doctoora is also an online marketplace where consumers search and book for healthcare professionals.
He has over 10 years of combined experience in healthcare service delivery, operations management and entrepreneurship from career exposures in Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United Arab Emirates. In this interview, he tells Anthonia Obokoh why he set up Doctoora and how much impact he has made since starting.
What inspired you to establish Doctoora?
During my clinical career, I had the unique opportunity of working at private and public healthcare centers in urban and rural settlements. One resounding theme was the inadequacy of health workers and the disparity in access due to inadequacy of healthcare facilities and, in dire cases, a complete lack of access. I once worked in a rural general hospital where patients had to travel long distances only to be referred to tertiary centers— because of inadequate equipment and skilled manpower to deliver their treatments.
My experience at a private hospital in an urban settlement was quite contrasting. Pieces of equipment were available but underutilised because cost of services was high. All these were happening in a country where $1.3 billion was being spent on medical treatments abroad yearly.
My vision was set on figuring out ways to reverse this loss of money such that we can grow our health system and achieve inclusion for rural inhabitants who cannot afford much. I opted to create a platform where foreign and local based practitioners can deliver services across multiple locations in Nigeria without incurring setup costs by leveraging the spare capacity in existing private hospitals. This way, patients that need the services can know where to meet the required healthcare providers. My hope is that this will increase access to healthcare and create prosperity for healthcare professionals so we can stop losing our best healthcare talents to more developed countries.
What was your initial start-up capital, how were you able to raise it and how would you say your business has grown since starting?
To be frank, all this started with a £500 capital which I spent building the first version of my website. I later raised a further £650 from friends at business school and about £20,000 from family. Initially, we set out to create the largest healthcare chain in Africa that owned no facilities, but our dreams were initially trumped by hospitals that refused to partner with us for the fear of damaging their reputations. For this reason, we established three outpatient clinics to demonstrate our concept and we eventually on-boarded 27 partner facilities within one year. The other hurdle was building our professional network. Our initial focus was the Nigerian industry where we tried to encourage healthcare professionals to leverage our facility rental solution to establish their own private practices. While the uptake was encouraging, we noticed these new private practitioners did not have strong clientele. Since then, we have opted to focus on connecting our network of professionals to healthcare consumers who need them. Our network currently has 185 healthcare professionals across surgical, medical, nursing, physiotherapy, nutrition and other health-allied domains, available to deliver services at our 30 locations in Lagos, Abuja and Ibadan.
How would you evaluate the healthcare industry in the country?
As a health management scholar, I recognise recent developments in Nigeria’s health sector, ranging from policy to financing and generally system strengthening. However, I believe we have a lot more to do and we must look towards technology. I am an optimist and strongly believe that we can restore trust to Nigerian healthcare. Quite importantly, the focus must shift towards achieving efficiency in both public and private sector.
What are some of your business expansion plans and how can it contribute to the health sector?
We have created a system that allows patients and health insurance companies to gain direct access to healthcare professionals with flexible location-based pricing. Our current goal is focused on building our international network for foreign-based healthcare professionals in our bid to reduce capital flight due to medical tourism. By bringing in foreign- based Nigerian doctors and their international counterparts to perform high- value surgical procedures and medical treatments in Nigeria, we can serve a lot more people who desire these services but cannot afford the non-treatment costs for example travel, accommodation, et cetera, associated with medical tourism. Ours is to establish a base for medical tourism in West Africa such that we can attract patients from other countries to purchase healthcare services here. It is our hope that this will go a long way towards building local capacity and healthcare infrastructure.
What are the major challenges you have faced since starting your business?
Every sojourn has challenges and these come on a day-to-day basis. However, two key challenges have stood out since I started.
First is the hiring talent. The talent pool in Nigerian is quite deficient, especially for start-ups with a considerably low budget. This makes it difficult to find quality team members to drive the company’s vision. We have particularly suffered with regard software engineers, which has cost of significant setbacks in our growth.
The second is funding, Access to funding for start-ups in Nigeria is quite difficult, and this makes it difficult for start-ups to experiment. The funds available from early stage and angel investors are typically not for testing. Every investor seems to want decent traction and a reasonably low risk entry point. We have been lucky to get some grants to support our growth as well as some pre-seed investment, but it will be great to witness a more enabling funding landscape in the near future.
How do you think the government can address some of these challenges in health start-ups?
Honestly, I really do not see much the government can do to help health start-ups beyond providing tax holidays and enabling policies. Healthcare marketing, for example, is a very grey area where a lot of advocacy is currently channelled. The issue here is that if healthcare professionals and organisations are restricted in their marketing, then how do consumers know about the available services? This sort of policy augmentation will help more health start-ups grow. Furthermore, there is a lot to be gleaned from new health promoting policies that can provide behavioural nudges to citizens. The advent of such policies will lead to more health tech solutions and help drive adoption of existing solutions.
Have you won any award or gotten any international grants apart from being listed in the Forbes under-30 Nigerian entrepreneurs?
We have won a couple of awards, including the emerging winners of the recently concluded Nigerian Economic Summit Start-up Pitch contest. Personally, I have been awarded a Global Action Against Poverty Fellowship for designing health interventions for rural communities.
What is your advice to other health start-ups?
I think with healthcare it is really important to use a lot of design thinking to approach what are typically very wicked problems. It is important to be sure that you are solving the root cause of a problem, not the symptoms, as it is quite easy to be dissuaded. More so, we need to be very user-centered in our approach to improving healthcare experiences for people especially in a domain like Nigeria where the general perception of healthcare services is poor. Lastly, it is important to collaborate. Working in silos will likely not help us achieve universal health coverage anytime soon.