Babylon's Rwanda-focused virtual care subsidiary, Babyl, inked a 10-year partnership with the country's government giving every person over the age of 12 access to digital health consultations.
According to Babyl, every appointment will be paid for through the government’s Mutuelle de Santé community-based health insurance scheme, which is managed by the Rwandan Social Security Board (RSSB).
WHAT IT MEANS
The service works this way: after registering, patients will be able to book an appointment through their phone, and a medical practitioner will reach out to take them through a triage and symptom checker platform that is reportedly set to launch later this year.
Through it, citizens will also have access to prescriptions, referrals and lab tests, which will be shared electronically with their Babyl doctor. Babyl says the system uses text messages and voice calls, therefore will also work on phones with limited internet capabilities.
WHY IT MATTERS
The shortage of health care staff has long been a concern for countries around the world. With a population of around 12 million, Rwanda was reported last year to have only 1,200 doctors.
An earlier service launched by Babylon with the government and the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation saw over two million people sign up to use it, with over one million consultations carried out.
“Increasing access to our doctors will help stop self-diagnosis and self-medication which lead to longer-term complications,” said Dr Daniel Ngamije, minister of health in Rwanda.
“With the reduced burden on health centres and other medical institutions, our medical professionals will be able to spend more time and resources on the most serious medical cases, further increasing the quality of healthcare delivery across the country.”
Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board, said the investment contributed to Rwanda’s National Strategy for Transformation by “ensuring access to quality health for all”.
THE LARGER PICTURE
Digital health company Babylon’s offering has proven to be quite popular. With partnerships in the UK, Canada and others, it secured $550 million in a Series C funding round last summer.
But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for the firm, with doctors raising concerns about its AI chatbot service.
Last week, the company took a step further and fired back at one of the critics, publishing details of Dr David Watkins' app data, who goes by the Twitter handle @DrMurphy11. Babylon said he had spent the equivalent of five weeks running 2,400 tests of its chatbot and raised issues with less than 100 results, as reported by MobiHealthNews.
The move was largely met with backlash on social media and led some to question the handling of users’ data.
“If safety related claims are made about our technology, our medical professionals are required to look into these matters to ensure the accuracy and safety of our products,” a spokesperson for Babylon told MobiHealthNews. “In the case of the recent use data that was shared publicly, it is clear given the volume of use that this was theoretical data (forming part of an accuracy test and experiment) rather than a genuine health concern from a patient.
“Given the use volume and the way data was presented publicly, we felt that we needed to address accuracy and use information to reassure our users. The data shared by us was non-personal statistical data, and Babylon has complied with its data protection obligations throughout. Babylon does not publish genuine individualized user health data,” the spokesperson continued.
ON THE RECORD
Commenting on the initiative announced today, Shivon Byamukama, CEO of Babyl Rwanda, said: “The people of Rwanda are supportive of this country’s forward-thinking vision and 98% of patients say they recommend Babyl and will use it again. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helped us set up this service and enabled Rwanda to demonstrate what’s possible and sustainable, now Rwanda can show the world how healthcare should be done.”
Editor's note, 10 March: This article was updated to remove a comment from the Rwandan Social Security Board.