December 3

Al Hammond

From the Field, Part 5: The Launch and Seeing the Vision Become Flesh

The formal launch was perhaps the most difficult part of the journey so far. Because both the Governor of the State and the Finance Minister were coming, the local political officials were determined that everything should be perfect. And they made demand after demand on our local staff, who literally worked around the clock for several days to pull everything off. And they did! The launch was perfect, capped by the public request of the Finance Minister that we build 600 units across the state and the private promise from both officials that they would help in numerous ways.

Even more moving, to me, was the experience of seeing patients-lots of patients-crowding our waiting rooms.

On some days, we had as many as 50 patients come to a unit-compared to a design goal, 6 months after launch, of 35. So we scrambled to hire more doctors, train more clinical assistants, and equip a second clinical room that we had fortunately designed into the healthpoints. A couple of incidents brought home to me what our service meant to these communities. One patient had come in with a wound in her thigh, running a bad fever. Guided by the doctor on the telemedicine link, the clinical assistant cleaned and bandaged the wound, and the pharmacist filled the doctor’s prescription of antibiotic.

I saw the patient two days later, and she was feeling much better, and very happy that she had not had to go to the district hospital many miles away. And one of our drivers had a high blood pressure incident-so we took him into the healthpoint, and the clinical assistant/telemedical doctor promptly took care of him. In both cases, prompt, accurate treatment helped avert what could have been a much worse outcome. Equally meaningful was seeing a young boy come to collect his family’s safe drinking water from our unit-less dramatic, but equally important for health.

We randomly survey our patients after treatment, and the feedback is that they feel very well treated at a healthpoint and think our prices fair ($1 to see a doctor, with an introductory rate of 60 cents, which just happens to be the price most of the village quacks-informal practitioners-charge). Women, in particular, like our service and the opportunity to see a woman doctor via telemedicine; the village quacks and the occasional government doctor are all male.

Of course, formal surveys can be misleading-sometimes people tell you what they think you want to hear. But an informal survey gave the same answer-our driver spent long days sitting in his car, listening to the villagers talk among themselves as they walked past him on the way home, and he reports the same consensus. The bottom line is that we seem to be on target with our customers, and that the pent-up demand for high quality healthcare services-at least in this part of rural Punjab–is larger than anyone knew.

We still have a long way to go to build a successful business, even though we are already getting inquries from other countries that also want healthpoints-a team from the Philippines is coming in December, and one from Vietnam soon after. And building village healthpoint units eats lots of cash, so we have to raise much more. But now we know exactly what we need to do to improve processes, gain efficiiencies, and continue to build volume to get to scale. And more importantly, we know that our market wants the product-and we have the satisfaction of seeing a concept turn into a living-even life-preserving-venture.

Base of the Pyramid