How DiagnoseMe.Africa, could fundamentally change how Nigerians receive healthcare
Dr Abasi Ene-Obong is the CEO and Co-founder of DiagnoseMe.Africa, Nigeria and Africa’s leading genetics and personalized medicine company which provides doctors, consumers and patients with life-saving diagnostic solutions that were previously inaccessible in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. He has more than 8 years’ experience in the health sector during which he worked in the UK, US and Nigeria. He was previously a cancer researcher in the UK and his seminal work on pancreatic cancer immunology is published in the leading journal, Gastroenterology, and has been cited hundreds of times. Afterwards he worked as a management consultant in the US during which he helped Fortune 100 pharmaceutical companies launch oncology and other specialty medicines globally. He has also carried out many projects for these companies that span business development, strategy, marketing and commercial operations amongst others. Some of the organisations he has performed work for include: PricewaterhouseCoopers USA, IQVIA (formerly QuintilesIMS), Panasonic, Abbot, Gilead, Merck, Pfizer, University of California and the US Trade Representatives. In Africa he has consulted for USAID, PharmAccess Foundation, Pathfinder International and a number of African governments.
In this interview, Ene-Obong, who holds four (4) degrees including, a PhD in Cancer Biology which he obtained in 2 years from Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry of the Queen Mary University of London, a Masters in Human Molecular Genetics from the Imperial College London, a Masters in Bioscience Management from the Claremont Colleges in California, and a Bachelors in Genetics and Biotechnology from the University of Calabar, speaks on how a medical tech startup could revolutionise healthcare in Nigeria.
You seem to have a passion for biology in relation to genetics as proven by your four degrees which includes a PhD. Was this always your passion growing up?
Genetics was actually an accident. I actually didn’t apply for the program and found my name on the list of admitted students. I was then going to do it as I waited for the other University I got admission in to start but after my introductory class I was sold! I realised early that what I actually wanted to do was to help people, to contribute. And I also realised that could be done a number of ways. What I urge people is to understand their motives and when they do, they might realise that they could achieve the same goals via other routes.
Can you speak on an accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career?
I am grateful to have been able to accomplish a lot with my education because I completed my PhD in 2 years from the UK. It wasn’t easy but I set out to do it and I accomplished it. I had a bachelors, 2 masters, and a PhD from global leading universities in three continents by 28 years of age.
What is DiagnoseMe and how does it work?
DiagnoseMe is an online platform under Stack Diagnostics, Nigeria’s first molecular diagnostics and personalized medicine company. It makes it possible for anyone to access life-saving tests conveniently from their homes and offices. Most of the tests on the DiagnoseMe platform cannot be found in laboratories around you as the Nigerian medical laboratory sector still has some infrastructural challenges. From testing for allergies; the risk of developing cancers such as breast, prostate, ovarian and cervical cancers; paternity tests; and non-invasive pregnancy tests. And all our tests are performed in the leading CLIA-certified laboratories in the world. We also give patients and doctors a secure portal to communicate and manage their health records for free.
What is the current rate of diseases that require molecular testing and genetic testing in Nigeria and how does it measure against other countries?
Interestingly, a lot of diseases now require genetic and molecular testing, ranging from infectious diseases to chronic diseases. For instance, scientific literature estimates that there are about 30 million Nigerians who are positive for hepatitis B and C. But where are these people you might ask? It might be you or me.
The problem with hepatitis is that in many cases it occurs without symptoms for up to 20 years after which it leads to liver cirrhosis, liver cancer and/ or end stage liver diseases. Another is HPV which is the cause of cervical cancer.
There are about 22 million women with HPV in Nigeria. Not all HPV strains cause cervical cancer which is why people get tested to determine if they have the cervical cancer-causing strain so that they can treat them. In other countries, women between the ages of 20 and 65 are required to routinely test (approx. every 3 years) for HPV.
Then there is prostate cancer which kills men terribly in Nigeria, yet survival of prostate cancer in the US and UK is 100 per cent. Or breast cancer which kills 80 per cent of women who get it in Nigeria (it is estimated that more than 100,000 women get it each year in Nigeria) whereas in the US and UK, only about 10 per cent of women die from breast cancer. Why? We don’t have the tools to prevent these diseases, detect them early or even understand the specifics. When our doctors are able to tell one cancer apart from another then they can prescribe the right drugs. All these is about to change with DiagnoseMe.
How will Stack Diagnostics as a whole contribute to the current health situation in Nigeria?
Well, Stack Diagnostics which is the parent company of DiagnoseMe is seeking to improve the state of healthcare in Nigeria by innovating around issues that improve personalized medicine. This includes our platform DiagnoseMe.africa. But we are developing tools that improve the patient and provider experience in Nigeria by providing accessibility to doctors for consumers as well as for doctors which is useful for getting second opinions and for referring patients. Soon we will be adding a telemedicine feature which will allow patients and providers have consultations through their portals from the convenience of their homes or offices..
How does DiagnoseMe cater to doctors in Nigeria?
Doctors can order from a menu of more than 300 tests including infectious diseases, cancers, diabetes, CVD, etc. For each test, we tell doctors what sample to collect, the sample bottle to use, the test price, the volume of the sample to collect, and why and when a test is typically ordered. There is also a doctor rebate amount for each test. Our doctor portal has many features and soon doctors will be incentivized for referrals carried out on the platform. I often experience Nigerian doctors excelling in hospitals abroad and the reason I think of is that Nigerian doctors who’ve moved abroad have the tools they need to carry out their work. DiagnoseMe for Providers (our doctor portal) has many valuable features for doctors that will improve their experience and it is free.
You spent some of your time in business, marketing and strategy. Do you find these useful in running Stack Diagnostics?
Of course! Most of the time I spent doing these things were in the healthcare space. I launched healthcare products including oncology medicines globally, was at the forefront of innovation and learned best practices. I think all of these come in very handy in running Stack.
What is the ultimate goal for DiagnoseMe and Stack Diagnostics as a whole?
Our main goal is that people would not have to travel abroad anymore because they can get tested and treated here. The truth is that what stops people from being properly treated is when they are not properly tested. How can one adequately treat when one does not know what they are treating? And even if some people continue conducting medical tourism, there are others who cannot afford those expenses. They too should receive care. But more importantly, we see people focusing on “easy to treat” diseases in the primary care setting and when you speak to them about complex diseases like cancer they make statements like “let’s finish treating malaria first before we go to cancers.” I believe people who say this may not have lost loved ones. When you have felt the itch, you will scratch! In Nigeria, we sometimes go for the easiest to do, and while that can be a smart strategy for the short term, it leads to longer terms inefficiencies. So, Stack and DiagnoseMe want to actually solve healthcare problems in Nigeria, not just by focusing on easy to do things, but by solving the problems people need solved, and sometimes, even before they know they have these problems.
Do you have any advice for people interested in your services?
DiagnoseMe is all about building products that work for consumers; we are keen on receiving consumer insights and feedback to better serve the public.