The future of specialist care in Africa
MedAtlas is creating a digital solution to make fertility care in Africa more accessible
MedAtlas is creating a digital solution to make fertility care in Africa more accessibleBy Stephanie Longeway University Relations
Mutumba was born and raised in Uganda, and after completing her master’s degree in England, she returned home to work in health care. She has overseen fertility clinics in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Zambia, and has witnessed firsthand the barriers patients face.
Accessing care is difficult because there are generally too few specialists and clinics to serve this vast geographical region.
“Only 21 countries out of 53 have fertility clinics. It’s not enough,” Mutumba says. This has led to major delays in patients being able to seek the treatment they need. Many couples are also required to travel far distances to larger urban centres to access in-person care, adding to the cost of an already expensive service.
Mutumba knew a solution to create more accessible care was needed. She founded MedAtlas, an affordable telemedicine healthcare platform that connects patients to a specialist from anywhere in Africa. But becoming an entrepreneur was not her original goal when she began her journey to better support patients.
“I never saw myself as an entrepreneur. Coming from a public health background, I have always been used to working in established traditional systems,” says Mutumba, who had been working for eight years in traditional clinic settings. “It wasn’t until I attended a Concept pitch competition that I thought, ‘I could do this.’”
The Concept $5K pitch competition gives Waterloo students with innovative solutions and high-potential business ideas the opportunity to showcase their work and compete for grant funding. Participants receive valuable feedback, pitching experience and idea validation from a network of entrepreneurs and coaches.
In spring 2021, MedAtlas won the Concept $5K competition, enabling the startup to use the funding to expand into West African nations and to add 20 doctors to their team. This past July, they were one of six early-stage startups to progress into Velocity where they will receive support to further refine their business model and proof of concept.
“Being at the University of Waterloo, and having access to this entrepreneurship ecosystem, has given me the technical expertise and coaching to guide me through the process of building a startup,” Mutumba says.
MedAtlas is focused on building a digital network of licensed specialists to offer accessible and affordable care. The startup launched with 10 doctors serving four countries: Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania and Rwanda.
In the beginning, the technology focused on holistic fertility care that treated patients’ physical health as well as offering mental health supports and counselling.
“There is a lot of social stigmas around infertility and there is a huge psychological component when going through this journey,” Mutumba says. Along with the emotional and economic strain infertility can have, there is often devastating social and cultural stigma, particularly for women.
MedAtlas also allows for the added comfort of seeking treatment from a patient’s own home. “Using digital technology means patients don’t have to travel to consult with a doctor, so there is an added element of privacy.”
The startup has now expanded their offerings to include a range of specialties including cardiology, neurology, oncology and mental health – making it easier for patients to access a range of licensed clinicians. “I want MedAtlas to create the future of specialist health care in Africa,” she says.
Africa is the fastest digital adopter in the world. Over the past two decades, it has seen the highest rate of increase in internet usage and connectivity compared to other regions. This is due in part to the widespread adoption of mobile phones and investments in internet infrastructure. Africa is also experiencing the youngest and fastest population growth globally.
Many businesses and startups are beginning to see the potential in this market, and Mutumba sees huge potential not only for the growth of telehealth but also for addressing inequitable access to care in Africa.
While internet quality and affordability are still a challenge for parts of the continent, more than 90 per cent of Africans now have mobile phones. MedAtlas is currently prioritizing nations that have infrastructure in place to support their online platform, and Mutumba is optimistic that innovation happening in the region will support further reach to expand MedAtlas’ services.
“As a PhD student, I’m very evidence-based, and I’m also impact-oriented. The connections I’m making through Waterloo and Velocity will allow me to make an impact internationally. It’s exciting to be on the ground — especially in the place where I’m from — and see those changes taking place.”
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is centralized within our Office of Indigenous Relations.