Non-profit venture Switchboard, the firm that set up MDNet, the successful scheme that offers free calls to doctors in Ghana, is in talks to introduce the service to other African countries. CEO and founder Eric Woods (pictured) told Mobile Health Live that the likeliest next country for a launch of the Switchboard model, which involves partnership with mobile operators, is Tanzania where he is in talks with the country’s ministry of health. “Tanzania has one of the lowest physician densities in the world. That makes it a good proposition for a non-profit like us,” said Woods.
MDNet was launched in Ghana in January, 2008 in partnership with Ghana Onetouch (now Vodafone). The service offers free calls and texts between the country’s 2,200 doctors, a crucial way to share limited expertise in certain specialisms. The organisation claims a 100 percent take-up among the country’s doctors. Since then Switchboard has added a doctor’s directory in September 2010 and now plans a SMS-based information service, which could, for example, warn doctors about a local outbreak of a disease that threatens to spread nationally.
Subsequently Switchboard launched MDNet in smaller Liberia in August 2008 through a partnership with mobile operator MTN. The service is used by all of the country’s doctors who only number 181 in total.
Tanzania marks a more sizeable project. Its total of 1,330 doctors puts it more in the league of Ghana than Liberia. Other countries are set to follow, and not just in Africa according to Woods. “This is a model we can scale beyond Africa. There are interesting markets in South East Asia too.”
In the process of working in Ghana, Woods’ non-profit morphed from being an all-purpose organisation to one with more specialist skills. “We saw a huge opportunity plus business model. It was worth building an organisation around it.” At start of this year it rebranded to the Switchboard name to reflect the change. It was previously known as Africa Aid. Now it has just launched a new website for the rebranded organisation that will offer more information and drive an increased interest about what it does.
Beyond any altruistic motives, mobile operators are attracted to Switchboard because of the incremental revenue a partnership can generate. While calls to their peers are free, doctors have to pay for non-work calls so generating a revenue stream for mobile operators. Since 2008, the partnership in Ghana has generated US$1.3 million in revenue for Vodafone.
A planned future expansion to include other healthcare professionals, such as nurses and midwives, will further boost operator revenues as well as spreading the benefits of MDNet to a wider audience.