Bringing health care to the barrios
It is no secret that the pandemic tested the limits of the country’s health-care system. The cracks became more apparent during the recent surge caused by the more infectious Delta variant of COVID-19. The health-care system reached its tipping point more than once, prompting the government to impose stricter quarantine measures as hospitals hit their choke points.
COVID-19 also casts its long shadow on the need to fill the gap of Filipinos without health insurance. It also highlighted the need for more health workers in remote communities.
A band of people thus came together and created a health startup that harnesses technology to widen access to health care. Reach52 developed an “offline-first” mobile platform that gives members—so far numbering 750,000 across the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Kenya—access to affordable health products.
Reach52 provides a suite of mobile applications for its workforce—primarily rural women called “community agents”—who connect families to sources of affordable medicine, treatment and information on healthy living. They lead the charge in bringing health care to underserved markets. These community agents are equipped with an offline-first mobile system to enroll users and deliver products and services to communities while earning income.
The health-care platform has been rolled out through over 300 community agents and since then enlisted over 130,000 Filipino members. To unlock its huge potential, Dutch financial giant ING and the United Nations Children’s Fund handpicked Reach52 as one of the five recipients of equity-free investment, technical and business mentorship under their “Fintech for Impact” program.
Reach52’s platform was launched in priority communities in Capiz and Iloilo in Western Visayas—areas which are grappling with chronic lack of health workers, poor access to medicine, high rates of infectious diseases and poor financial protection.
“The Reach52 access platform is designed based on our research, data and insights into the needs of the communities and our agents on the ground,” said Edward Booty, chief executive and founder of Reach52. “These are lower-income, low-connectivity regions with relatively low digital literacy, so the apps are designed with a simple user experience, to work on older versions of Android, and to be ‘offline first’ so our agents can roam across remote communities, provide health support and process orders, and then sync the data when back online.”
Reach52’s networks of community agents undergo in-person training and are equipped with mobile digital resources. These include checklists, explainer videos and one-pagers to communicate the various health products—all accessed via mobile phones.
Going to the grassroots
One of these community agents is 35-year-old Pearl Joy Lapastora. She joined Reach52 at the height of the pandemic in May 2020 and underwent several trainings—from how to use the app to how to speak with residents in other communities. Prior to joining reach52, Lapastora was a barangay health worker in Pototan, Iloilo.
“As a community agent, I go house-to-house almost every day to profile the residents using the Reach52 app. I explain to them the services that Reach52 provides, such as how to order medicine or get an insurance. Usually, I profile 50 residents per day. Their most common illness is hypertension,” Lapastora said.
But quarantine measures limited her movement at some point. Most barangays refused to let her in for fear that she might be a virus carrier. “There were so many checkpoints to go through but that did not stop me from carrying out my task as a community agent. I tried hard to continue the programs of Reach52 like the Padayon program,” she said. This refers to an affordable program to provide access to coaching, screening and medicine, thereby delivering improved clinical outcomes for low-income populations in Pototan in Western Visayas.
Lapastora also received basic training on how to measure a person’s blood pressure and to monitor blood sugar using a glucometer. Seniors afflicted with hypertension and diabetes were delighted with this service. “Whenever I see the faces of the lolos and lolas light up when I measure their blood pressure, this makes me love my job more because I know I am able to help those who are truly in need,” she said.
During last year’s lockdowns when no vaccine was yet in sight, seniors, expectant mothers and children were not allowed to leave their homes as they were considered as most vulnerable to COVID-19. It was a difficult task to even acquire essential needs such as medicine, especially for the elders. This was when Reach52’s “access e-commerce” service came in handy, supporting the delivery of medicine and other health products directly to the villages through agents and distribution partners.
It was admittedly a difficult time for Lapastora to reach the residents, especially the seniors, but through Reach52, she was able to serve their needs.
“They were so grateful because they didn’t need to travel to the pharmacy, which was located in the city’s commercial center, just to purchase their medicines. Some even ordered [through the app] their maintenance medicine because they couldn’t miss a single dose,” she said.
“I will never forget the look on their faces when I would deliver their maintenance medicines on time and right in front of their doorstep,” she added.
This access e-commerce service incorporates an offline-first mobile “health wallet” feature to digitize payments and processes for the communities, typically in low-connectivity regions that heavily rely on cash payments.
Community agents like Lapastora manage and process orders and payments within this wallet environment, simplifying processes as well as capturing information digitally to improve future services. A planned points-based loyalty scheme will enable users to earn even more discounts on orders. “The hope is for minimized cash transactions to improve awareness of and access to digital financial and health solutions,” Booty said.
Believing in the power of the community, Reach52 partners with pharmaceuticals, med tech and consumer health and financial service providers to leverage the platform and create replicable and scalable health services across low- and middle-income countries like the Philippines.
The company also partnered with Medtronic Labs and public health providers to deliver a new subscription service for noncommunicable diseases, enabled by the Reach52 access platform. It has collaborated with public and private sector partners to equip over 5,000 community health workers with digital tools and diagnostics across the Western Visayas, providing essential support for noncommunicable disease and infectious disease (including COVID-19) treatment as well as maternal and child health in hard-to-reach rural populations.
Under “Fintech for Impact” program, Reach52 was able to further develop its suite of apps with open-source tools and forge more private and public partnerships to improve the health and well-being of low-income rural families.
Data will drive future plans for the communities, determining which products and services people are in direst need of but are hard to access due to distance, price and availability. Both e-commerce and last-mile delivery systems are also critical for Reach52, which is targeting to enlist 1.5 million users by the end of 2021.
“This catalyzes the step-change into fintech for health for us. We’ll provide affordable medicines and insurance to lower-income communities and unlock marketplace and scale,” Booty said.
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