Kamaru Adekanya, a 42-year old new partner in a law firm experienced what seemed like a cross between shortness of breath and gas in the chest for three weeks, but kept hoping it was nothing serious, expecting the slight occasional discomfort to go away on its own. He was unable to visit the doctor because of his extremely heavy workload. Racheal Akaluka, a 42-year-old teacher had similar symptoms; she was slightly worried but did not think it was something serious enough to pay N5,000 over to see a neighbourhood doctor who may not even have the experience to offer the correct diagnosis.

Lack of time and lack of disposable income respectively could have led to Kamaru and Racheal experiencing a heart attack. Any Nigerian in their shoes could be saved from such a fate by chatting with highly experienced doctors online. Interestingly, if they have an account with FCMB, their first 30-minute telemedicine consultation is free. A doctor would discuss their symptoms with them via chat and spur them to invest the time or money in seeking conclusive diagnosis and early treatment.

The new coronavirus pandemic is boosting the demand for telemedicine, defined as an exchange of medical information using telecommunications- in Nigeria and all over the world.  It allows doctors to advise, educate and monitor their clients or patients while they are in their homes or offices using technology such as video-conferencing applications, E-mail, phone calls or private online portals.

Discussing symptoms or general health issues with a doctor over the telephone or through video apps such as Zoom has experienced phenomenal growth during the pandemic. At the high end, digital tools are used to test and monitor patients at a safe distance, i.e. from the comfort of their homes. At the other end, it may result in nothing more serious than a recommendation that the patient takes more fluid. The expansion is being driven by developing countries such as Nigeria where telemedicine is expanding access to healthcare riding on the lower-cost of reaching and delivering services to underserved areas. In Mexico for instance, an entrepreneur has launched a virtual chain of clinics, Clinicas del Azucar, specialized in providing diabetics healthcare in remote areas; it has deployed an app that allows patients to test glucose levels with the results transmitted to the clinic’s central database.  The global telemedicine industry is now estimated to grow by 19.3%, attaining a value of $175.5 billion by 2025.

Telemedicine has usefully kept patients from visiting clinics as Nigeria and other nations face the new coronavirus pandemic; this reduces the number of people going into clinics and thus the possibility of spreading the virus. The pandemic has opened the ‘vista’ to the broadening of telemedicine in Nigeria, with huge benefits on offer in terms of improved healthcare and quality of life as well as business or economic opportunities.

Professionals juggling busy careers, childcare and social calendars, all while contending with heavy traffic which turns a quick dash to the clinic into three-hour journeys in many of Nigeria’s big cities find telemedicine a heaven-sent. More and more of them will embrace telemedicine services as they become more widely available. It will also contribute to solving the problem of poor-quality healthcare as top quality providers use it as a cost-effective way to roll out their services to less well-heeled segments of the population who embrace them as a means of double-checking the advice they receive from low-cost private clinics. 

Hospitals have been able to use telemedicine as an effective means of recruiting new patients. People who may never have come into a clinic due to various reasons, deep a toe in by first making a telephone call to consult a doctor and start to use in-clinic services after being satisfied with the initial telephone consultation. Telemedicine also makes hospitals much more efficient even when patients have to come in; preliminary consultation and screening over the telephone provides precise information about what specifically a patient requires and they spend less time when they come into the clinic or hospital. 

Telemedicine will also make a significant contribution to providing quality care to people in remote areas of Nigeria and closing the gap in the quality of healthcare between the town and the village. Outside the major urban centres, healthcare suffers not only from availability issues (Nigeria has only four doctors for every 10,000 people) but also from widespread quackery.  The business opportunity is that millions of Nigerians in these poorly and underserved areas already pay out of pocket for the medical advice of dubious quality. Telemedicine is also a great cost saver for clinics; in the USA, a typical telehealth appointment costs $40 to $50 while an in-person visit typically costs $176.

Telemedicine has finally arrived in Nigeria with the pandemic. Nigerian entrepreneurs have a great opportunity in adapting it to fit patients’ needs and the environment over time. There will be entrepreneurs developing apps and signing on good quality, experienced doctors to deliver healthcare over the apps.  Some, including Lafiya, Hudibia and Tremendoc have already debuted, offering access to professional medical advice online. Further work remains to be profitably done adapting apps to local languages and marketing them more aggressively, including to the low-income in urban as well as rural areas. A super telemedicine app could emerge that is more popular and more profitable than the largest healthcare chain in Nigeria. Some providers could concentrate on serving low income or rural areas. Other opportunities include companies that provide online pharmacies and at-home sample collections for lab tests, thus linking old brick and mortar medicine with its new cousin on the bloc, telemedicine. Nigerian new telemedicine SMEs will surely prove to be lifesavers and money-spinners given the urgent need to expand healthcare in Nigeria.