Founder Spotlight: Edward Booty of reach52, Advocating for a Socially Progressive Healthcare System
By Gianna Abao
With the recent discovery of the new variant of COVID-19, Filipinos are now realizing the dire need to improve our healthcare systems. Fortunately, Edward Booty of reach52 is just one of the visionary leaders who aim to provide an inclusive healthcare system for people in rural areas and bring about the biggest shakeup in the healthcare industry globally. In an interview with TechShake, Edward tells us how reach52 is thriving in the Philippines and how they coordinate with Filipinos from the grassroots level and several pharmaceutical companies’ biggest players to drive change in the country’s healthcare system.
Could you tell us a brief background about yourself?
Sure. I graduated from the London School of Economics where I studied Management. After graduating, I wasn’t quite set on which path I wanted to pursue in life career-wise, so I decided to travel and went to India for six months. Towards the end of that period, I was able to land an internship position at a major pharmaceutical company there. They were focusing on access to medicine and how to get affordable medicines to the underserved rural populations – not only as a social goal but also as a sustainable business opportunity. Creating access to healthcare for all in this way energized me, and I believe that was the pivotal moment in my life that led me to where I am today.
After my time in India, I went back to the UK and worked as a management and technology consultant for the UK health service. By this time, health was something that I really wanted to focus on, and in particular, my passion for health access in lower income communities. I then moved to Singapore four years ago, and started reach52.
After establishing reach52 in Singapore as an HQ and getting our first funding, I moved to Manila, Philippines, which is one of the countries where we are implementing our services in, along with India, Cambodia and most recently Indonesia.
We've witnessed the rapid growth of health tech and access to healthcare this year, can you share with us the brief story of reach52? How did you come up with the idea?
I was inspired by my time in India and also back when I was working in the UK health sector. The time I spent in India provided me with first-hand experience of how healthcare was still a luxury for so many people. Currently, 52% of the world’s population still do not have access to healthcare – which is where the “reach52” name comes from, and it’s a solvable problem. However, one of the biggest challenges that the world currently faces is the increasing global population while traditional healthcare infrastructure and service delivery models, such as hospitals and clinics, are not able to effectively serve them - especially with the rapidly increasing burden of lifestyle disease.
I realized that there is an untapped opportunity to not only make a difference in people’s lives, but also in helping businesses achieve their social impact goals. I saw that leading pharmaceuticals’ social impact and access to medicine goals could be expanded to support underserved communities and their growth into new markets. In addition, it was an opportunity to take advantage of technology and more efficient, digitally-enabled models of healthcare delivery. In the last few years, tech advancement has been remarkable, and in my view is the only way to create health for all.
reach52 is not your average tech startup. Yes, we do leverage data to ensure that our services are targeted and received by the right people. We also take an “offline-first” approach in the sense that we go to rural barangays in municipalities and train women in their villages to provide health access – creating a bridge to digital services, supported by our tech platform that works fully offline. The women are equipped to collect data on healthcare needs, run local health events, work with the local government and health providers to do screening campaigns, and bring doctors to these rural areas. They also order and distribute affordable private sector products and services, such as medicine, insurance and everyday health products.
In essence, the core of reach52 is to build an accessible health service for lower income communities, where traditional infrastructure doesn’t reach. Moreover, it’s been designed to be more efficient than traditional health infrastructure and can be scaled much faster. To achieve this, we also work together with the private sector which contributes by funding programs and offering discounted medicines and other health services. In return, they can open new markets, and achieve their social impact goals. By cooperating and engaging with the private sector, we are sustainably financed, and we ensure the communities are given access to essential health services at an affordable price.
reach52 team (Photo credits to reach52)
As one of the aims of reach52 is to have affordable and accessible health care solutions, what are the challenges you have encountered while growing reach52, and how did you overcome them?
True, like any business, especially a social business, reach52 has encountered several challenges as we scale. One of the unique challenges that we face is that we can’t be entirely digital in a sense that we still need people on the ground and to operate into the field. In terms of challenges, we could probably break it down into three areas: 1) digital challenges; 2) scalability challenges; and 3) business challenges.
For the digital challenge, our main bottleneck would have to be connectivity and access. Half of the world’s population doesn’t have access to healthcare. The Internet is also a major issue, especially in countries where broadband and high-speed internet is still not accessible to every citizen, similar to here in the Philippines. There are plenty of Filipinos who do not yet have internet access, and 60% of the barangays we support have no phone signal at all. Digital literacy in low-income communities is often quite minimal. People are not able or willing to embrace tech on a large scale and many do not have mobile phones, especially the elderly. The health workers that we work with and the people from low-income communities are not used to digital devices, and still use paper and pen to record and transmit information. These were some of the challenges we encountered when we were designing our apps. We needed something that was able to work offline. It had to be basic and beginner friendly to be able to be used by a wide range of people with different tech skills and confidence. It also had to support very old versions of the Android operating system as we discovered that when people did have a phone, they would opt for a budget friendly mobile phone that runs an older version of Android.
In terms of scalability, since we are working with the government, there is a lengthy process to get approvals for our service delivery. This can be quite challenging, in particular, when working with the local government units (LGUs). The decentralized nature of getting these agreements is a major barrier to scale. In order to achieve the scalability we are aiming for, it requires many agreements, partners, and bureaucracy which takes time and a considerable amount of effort to achieve.
As for business challenges, there is a lot of vested interest from existing commercial players that we have to tackle in order to provide affordable medicines. Organizations like big pharmacy chains cannot see some of the discounted pricing that lower-income communities might get, so you have a lot of difficulties working with some partners who want to keep that confidential and protect their core business, while also running socially-orientated programs.
In your opinion, what kind of impact does reach52 have in healthcare?
Ultimately, we are looking to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare for the 52% of the world who are not able to access healthcare now. To measure our impact, we focus on “social return on investment”. What this means is that for every $1 we make as revenue in reach52, we save $2.10 for a financially-challenged individual in their healthcare costs. In practical terms, our services enable individuals in our communities to access the affordable health products, insurance and services that they need for their families and themselves. This not only impacts health and wellbeing, but also supports economic growth of the communities – a WHO report found that 25% of growth in low-and-middle income countries is driven by health. Hence, our focus is on scaling fast to connect more users to more of the affordable health services they need to support this.
During this time of uncertainty, can you share how reach52 managed to cater for the needs in the “new normal”?
We are very fortunate to be a social business that provides online and offline services. With the “new normal” being implemented everywhere, we experienced some restrictions of movement, and also shutdown of some services temporarily last year. Despite these challenges, we have been able to address the ramifications of COVID-19 on our business relatively effectively due to our digital health services. Ultimately, the pandemic created a huge impact on our business, but we’ve managed to integrate digital solutions to address this such as performing online training for health workers on Facebook, as well as implementing some of our services online to enable us to digitize services directly for our community-based users. We are taking all available opportunities to deliver as much as we can digitally to support patients such as health education for residents, training health workers, implementing our medicine access services, signing up new municipalities, and working with local government officials and municipal health officers.
Previously, reach52’s biggest challenge was that we often had to implement our services ourselves. Now, we work with organizations that are on the ground with an existing field workforce, such as NGOs, and partner with them to implement the reach52 model. We currently work with quite a few NGO partners and they manage the training and roll it out with their teams. We digitize as much as we can, and then, we work closely with these established NGO organizations to drive growth.
How do you see reach52 developing in the next 5 years?
I think in the next five years, reach52 will definitely have massive growth, based on the demand that we are currently getting. In fact, we actually doubled our clients during COVID-19. We are currently working with Johnson & Johnson, Biocon, and a few prominent pharmaceutical companies. In addition, we launched in India this year and just hired our first staff in Indonesia. Furthermore, we are also rolling out products and services to more rural areas and expanding our tech product. Due to the high demand and growth we have been experiencing, we have doubled our software development team, and started building new advanced features for health workers on the frontline. We are also providing more telehealth services to support our communities and patients in the rural areas and are looking into building a direct-to-patient app.
We are also hoping to support the COVID-19 vaccine roll out to areas that governments can’t reach, and we are more than ready to aid in the distribution of the vaccine to these areas.
I believe businesses and society, in general, will care more about health access for all as a result of the pandemic. We have seen many underprivileged communities struggling due to COVID-19. I’ve also seen social impact on the agenda of businesses which are also starting to care more and wanting to act in a more socially responsible manner. The private sector is actively working with us by providing funding and access to discounted services, which in turn gives us an opportunity to scale up.
In summary, we are actively adding more partners, growing users, and continuing to grow and develop in more countries; and want to connect 70 million people to healthcare in the next 5 years.
If you’re curious about how you can take part in a socially progressive healthcare system, click here to visit reach52’s website or you can connect with Ed here on LinkedIn.