Rose Weeks

Better Living Through Information

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the NextBillion series, Advancing Healthcare With the BoP. The Center for Health Market Innovations (CHMI) and Ashoka are both contributors to the series.

While serving as a translator in Dominican clinics during a Peace Corps stint, Nandu Madhava realized that many people in emerging markets suffer from health problems due to a lack of information. Particularly adolescents knew very little about sexual health and contraception. Madhava realized that providing access to accurate and relevant information about these taboo topics was a critical step in empowering people to achieve positive health outcomes. Flash forward across the years he spent honing his entrepreneurial acumen at investment banks and the Harvard Business School, and the Texas-reared TED fellow is banking on young people’s thirst for practical health information presented via original video and text content – delivered over mobile phones. His company, mDhil (m for mobile, Dhil for heart), is based in Bangalore’s Richmond Town, where it shares an office with the BoP-focused jobs board

Rose Reis, CHMI: Describe your audience and its health needs.

Nandu Madhava: Our main focus is the Indian youth audience – we have excellent content on topics including sexual health, family planning, contraception, and women’s health. A representative customer would be an urban teen or college student who seeks to learn more about relevant health concerns. We also have content on chronic and lifestyle diseases like diabetes and obesity.

Reis: Is your content accessible to all?

Madhava: Our core focus is currently urban youth, and this is a huge market within India. As the 3G mobile network rolls out across India, broadband mobile services will become available in semi-urban and rural India over the next 24 months. Coupled with the steep price fall in smart phones, we believe we can grow our user base to reach frequently marginalized communities. But I’m careful to not make a classic start-up mistake: trying to be all things to all people.

Reis: How do you ensure that you deliver relevant information?

Madhava: From the outset since I started mDhil three years ago, I’ve always engaged public health professionals, physicians and nurses to help understand the health challenges seen in India. We have several health professionals on our staff, as well as a health advisory board and we run our content by Indian NGOs. Looking at World Health Organization (WHO) data, many people mistakenly believe that most health challenges are isolated at the bottom of the period in India. In reality, there are tremendous challenges in accessing accurate and relevant health information across economic and gender lines.

Reis: What technologies do you use to reach your customers?

Madhava: Originally, we focused on delivering SMS subscriptions via mobile carriers in India. We still are active in the SMS business, however, there are two seismic changes happening in mobile: (1) The launch of 3G data networks in India, and (2) a proliferation of low-cost smart phones. Both of these changes let us reach end-users with feature rich content, mainly video and articles with imagery. In the past, we had to charge users to access our SMS content via mobile carriers. Going forward, we’re focusing on a great mobile (as well as desktop) Internet site where our content is free and advertising supported. There are already 20 million Facebook users in India, and India is the second largest country for mobile advertising after the USA, according to Google/Admob. So mobile Internet in India is not a trend that ’might happen’, but instead a trend that is happening right now.

Reis: How do you produce the videos on your website?

Madhava: Since launching our video channel about three months ago, we have gotten over 15,000 video views – 90 percent of this traffic is from India and 30 percent is viewed over mobile. We work with young directors who share our vision to create meaningful, empowering content for a youth audience. Setting basic parameters around issues like length of content, sound quality and good lighting, we give creative freedom to the directors. We look for scripts that focus on positive health messages – my goal is not to frighten or belittle our users. We often heard that many youth didn’t reach out for information in the past due to the paternalistic and condescending nature of the existing health system. I look for empathy in our directors and scripts.

Reis: Do you ever receive any negative feedback on your coverage of taboo topics like sex?

Madhava: Well, we approach sexual health in a frank, open, and honest manner. We work with people who have a deep respect for cultural, gender, and sexual equality for all citizens. We don’t seek to shock or upset people; we want to encourage critical thought and respectful discussion. I was recently at an evening event in Bangalore where I sat across the Indian contemporary artist Subodh Gupta. At first, he was a bit churlish due to my American accent. However, when he found out that my work focused on positive sexual health discussions, HIV/AIDS prevention, and gender equality for women, he expressed his love and camaraderie. I thought, “Hey, if a respected artist like Subodh Gupta likes this, then I must be doing something right”.

Reis: Do you plan to expand to any new technology platforms?

Madhava: I’m a big believer of Android in the Asian markets, but that said, will be interesting to see what happens with Nokia and Microsoft now working together

Reis: You will be presenting on technology trends in India at SXSW this March. What day should we be there? Also, this makes us wonder, is mHealth the new Arcade Fire? Discuss.

Madhava: I love Arcade Fire! Hopefully we’ll be just as cool! Wish us luck…we are speaking at the Technology Summit at SXSW during the week … keep an eye out for us.

Watch mDhil videos here, then read about 55 other programs in India working to make people more savvy consumers of healthcare. Know of another cool, innovative program? Register and enter it here.