MEDIA mogul Trevor Ncube’s In Conversation With Trevor held its inaugural Ideas Festival (IF) in Nyanga last week as it sought to create a space where participants share lessons on moving from an idea to creating products and services. At the festival, ideas were shared. Our senior business reporter Melody Chikono (MC) spoke to Cimas chief executive officer Vulindlela Ndlovu (VN), who said there was a lot of innovation that can be done around health care. Below are excerpts from the interview:
MC: You focused on health and wellness in the digital age. What can you say about innovation in the health services sector?
VN: There is a lot of innovation that can be done in healthcare. The issue is always about solving a real problem, and we have a lot of problems. We are seeing people coming through sometimes with those solutions. There can be solutions about the quality of the health outcomes, health coverage, that is, financial health coverage, making sure that people can afford the health care.
It can be a solution about access to health care. Quality of health outcomes talks about being effective in the diseases that are treated. Prevention is huge for us. We still can innovate around those areas. We want to inspire healthier communities by making sure that there are proper standard health and wellness solutions. Naturally, that means we need to make sure that we deliver results in wellness, in financial coverage and in health.
MC: What are you doing as Cimas around innovation?
VN: We do encourage innovation as much as possible. We do have internal innovation challenges. We do work with certain institutions, such as Harare Institute of Technology, quite often around hackathons. We also welcome people to come to us and pitch ideas. One of the points that came out of this if that I learnt is how we, as corporate institutions, are not giving attention to some of the ideas that are pitched.
MC: Do you have any funding that you have set aside in terms of your innovation?
VN: So far our efforts have been solving because we are a healthcare, health funder, and health group that is there to primarily reach as many people as possible. But we do have people that are contributing to our survival, who are our members.
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Our primary objective is to serve those members. So, when people come to us, pitch conditions, our first reference point is, is it going to improve a lot of our members? But we are now learning that it is not just about our members. It is important that we focus on our members, but also future members. There is also health, a public issue. We want as many people to be as healthy as possible. So, sometimes we need to give to society. And so we do sometimes solve a health care problem that benefits the whole country.
MC: You touched on the need for everyone to be affording health. How feasible is that in an environment like Zimbabwe?
VN: One of the things that we need to think about in Zimbabwe is that of funding in healthcare. It is probably not where it is supposed to be. And as a result, you find that the households sometimes spend quite a disproportionate amount of their income on health care. The public health specialists call it catastrophic health expenditure, where you are spending more than 10% of your income on health. This is something that we need to address even as a country and it starts with increased budget allocations. Because those people are actually spending so much of their income, they are at the lower end of the income scale. As citizens, we have a responsibility to make sure that each one of us is actually catered for in terms of their health and we saw it during Covid -19.
MC: Are you talking about health equity?
VN: That is where I would start from. The starting point is for us to assist in lobbying for our government to provide more money into healthcare. For example, the proportion of budget allocation, even more than the Abuja declaration, which is 15%, currently we are way below that. So, that is the starting point. Once we are spending money in public health, because we are all paying tax, the private sector also comes in to complement. Yes, for those that can afford, they can spend from outside their pocket.
Yes, for those that can afford, they can take private health insurance. For me, we need to balance all those two and make sure that they move in tandem so that everybody is catered for. If we are investing enough in healthcare, be it in the private or the public, then we will have the health facilities that we will need, that will pay the healthcare workers, retain the healthcare workers in the country, and attract more healthcare workers into their professions.
MC: Do you think investment in artificial intelligence (AI) can solve some of the health challenges that you have?
VN: Absolutely. Technology is an equalizer for us as Africans. If you look at AI, now you have got a situation where we are able to programme knowledge into these tools such that they can do things that are done by humans in a faster way. I have got an example where they are using AI in mental health consultation.
They put up the avatars to actually call its video conferencing. You call and you consult your AI or your avatar and consult as if you are talking to a doctor. Look at the advantage. It is expensive to train doctors and they cannot be everywhere, but if you enable this AI to interact with as many patients, you are now into millions, is it not? So you still need doctors, but they are feeding the knowledge and teaching, programming the AI to actually interact with the patients.
For me, it does offer a huge advantage because you are now delivering this at a lesser cost. Even the doctors are now spending more time deepening their knowledge so that they can programme the AI.
MC: How serious is the mental health problem in Zimbabwe?
VN: I think the problem is serious and in my view some of the cases may be undiagnosed.
In our business, for example, we were one of the medical aids to include mental health benefits and guess what? We are actually finding people that need these benefits to be paid.
We invested in a facility that does drug rehabilitation and mental health rehabilitation. And again, we are finding that these facilities are being utilised. Increasingly, people are now consulting psychologists; they are now consulting psychiatrists, but also through our mental wellness programme.
We deal with all dimensions of wellness, including mental wellness, and emotional wellness. Sometimes there, people diagnose issues that need further attention. So, it is a prevalent problem and in the past maybe we have not paid sufficient attention to it.
MC: What attention do you think mental health needs from a government and policy perspective?
VN: I think first of all it is making sure that people have got as much access as possible, people can access the treatment, people can access the experts that they need, but it is also about de-stigmatisation. Probably all of us do need some mental health attention at any point in time. We just need to admit that. We just react sometimes when something has happened, and we are seeing suicides, and we are now just seeing the end results of it. When it gets to that point, that person has probably been suffering under stress for years possibly, up to getting to that point.
MC: Cimas has been importing medicines. What is the impact of that on your import bill and what is your comment on the production of pharmaceuticals in Zimbabwe?
VN: The best thing for us is to produce as much of the pharmaceuticals as Zimbabwe. Some of the things we import, for example, are liquids, which you have to transport for distances. There is a need for a pharmaceutical industry in Zimbabwe. But the issue is we also must have a critical mass. The market must be there and that market is both the public and the private sector, especially the public sector. Government can afford to buy, and is going to be very instrumental in supporting local manufacturers, as has been the case when Zimbabwe has a vibrant manufacturing industry. So it is down to us investing money into health care as the government, also the private sector, in supporting the local manufacturers.
But you know that the numbers must also make sense. So if you go to a manufacturer, who can manufacture goods at a price that is competitive to those that have been landed from other markets and particularly if they can export those goods and create bigger markets for themselves, so be it. But as they say, charity begins at home. We all must start supporting the local industry for it to come up. It is coming up by the way. There are a few things happening, but maybe not at the scale we like.
MC: We are coming to the end of 2023. What can you say about your performance this year?
VN: The year 2023 has been a year where we have had to navigate certain issues. The economic environment has had obvious issues we have had to manage. Some of those issues have been grappling with increasing medical costs. That has been the biggest challenge. And we also know that there is an affordability issue on the basis of our customers, our patients, our members.
They will need the service, but with increasing costs, all that becomes a challenge. We want to think that if we can have, maybe a stable environment in terms of inflation, in terms of currency, and volatility. So, we want to think that if we can have a stable environment in terms of inflation, currency, and volatility.
That is the environment we wish for but we cannot get it in its entirety. So it is a question of managing that and trying to build efficiencies into our systems such that we manage that and move with our customers.
MC: And your outlook?
VN: This environment calls you to be nimble in navigating the changes as they occur. Sometimes it does not give you enough time to connect and communicate with our customers.
The more we live in this environment, the more we perfect those models. We want to continue a lot of programmes that we are doing, particularly improving access to healthcare, improving the quality of ensuring better health outcomes to serve our members and also increasing coverage and reaching out to many people, making sure that the benefits are meeting the needs of the people.