In rural Pakistan, many low-income families lack access to adequate healthcare. Meanwhile, thousands of female doctors in cities are restricted to their homes because of outdated cultural and social barriers. Enter Sehat Kahani, a healthcare provider that uses technology to digitally connect home-based female doctors with remote communities in the South Asian country. Co-founder and CEO Dr. Sara Saeed first had the idea to build this e-health network after the birth of her first child in a new city made it difficult for her to return to work. Fast forward to present-day and Sehat Kahani has 24 e-clinics and 1,500 female doctors throughout Pakistan, helping a staggering 86,000 patients since 2017 with affordable primary care services through virtual consultations and a mobile app.
Recognizing Dr. Saeed’s success in democratizing healthcare access and empowering women in Pakistan, Rolex has honored the Pakistani doctor with the 2019 Rolex Award for Enterprise, an award celebrating changemakers making the world a better place for future generations. After accepting the award at the luxury timepiece manufacturer’s flagship boutique at The Dubai Mall in early December, Vogue Arabia spoke with Dr. Saeed to reflect on ways to overcome the “doctor bride” phenomena, how other communities worldwide can adopt her initiative, and the impact of this prestigious award on her organization’s future.
What inspired you to connect healthcare and female empowerment as your initiative’s causes?
Sehat Kahani is associated with two major healthcare difficulties that exist in Pakistan today, the first being the “doctor bride” phenomena and the second being how it influences the healthcare structure of the country.
Pakistan’s total medical workforce comprises of 70% female doctors. However, only an extremely modest number of these doctors move from graduation to formal medical practice as most of them are unable to continue practice due to social and cultural constraints. Unfortunately, most parents want their daughters to become doctors only so that they can get married to the best of the lot; and the ones who continue to practice are driven to give up their careers to remain with their kids or take care of their family. This phenomenon further adversely affects a huge proportion of the 207 million people of Pakistan who have not seen a specialist in their lifetime. As a result, these people living in underserved communities end up visiting attendants, midwives, or quacks for getting healthcare assistance—mostly when there is an emergency or at the stage nearest to death. In most cases, this leads to complicating the issues further due to inadequate care.
For us, the motivating factor will remain to be able to provide these female doctors with an avenue to practice their profession, while providing patients with quality healthcare using technology, empowering all involved in the process.
As a service rooted in giving further opportunities to “doctor brides”, why do you believe it’s important to empower women to return to the workforce after marriage?
Every woman deserves the choice to be able to work, be it a doctor, a nurse, or someone belonging from another expert field. Our vision is to combat health inequality, hence, it is extremely imperative for us to bring female specialists back to work after marriage. Pakistan heavily faces a medical emergency at this moment and if women and children of our nation can not get access to quality healthcare in their lifetime, it will only deteriorate the healthcare ecosystem further.
What cultural barriers do these women often face and how do you help them overcome them?
A major social hindrance is that women in our country are not permitted by their families or their spouses to go out and work. In other cases, they are not allowed to leave their households and are expected to stay at home to take care of the children and do household chores. Since it is considered a social taboo in Pakistan, these women are unable to step out and work at workplaces or different work environments. The other social hindrance is that the women in Pakistan are looked down upon if they leave their kids to babysitters and nannies at home. There are no formal daycares or child protection systems and the opportunities to work are not that flexible to be able to cater to the needs of kids as well as work in one go.
The ideal solution to combat this would be to increase job opportunities for females with flexible hours as well as a provision of a nursery if need be. Hence at Sehat Kahani, we have developed a system to accommodate our female staff with these facilities to create a safe and comfortable environment to work in, whether in-house or from the comfort of their homes.
What role has technology played in creating, building, and further scaling your project?
Technology is an enabler and an extremely important one for us. It has enabled us to bridge the gap between our two key audiences: Female doctors and the patients. Also, it has provided us with the ultimate solution to empower female doctors whilst enabling access to quality healthcare for the people living in rural areas. Technology has the potential to be used in multiple ways. We are now using an electronic medical record system and storing data digitally. We also use a digital platform where doctors and patients are connected physically, as well as several diagnostic digital tools to ensure that examination is being carried out efficiently, recorded correctly, and there is minimal chance of errors at the nurses’ end while entering the data.
How can other countries model your initiative in their own remote communities?
Sehat Kahani works in Pakistan and could simultaneously work in the other parts of the world as well using the right approach. Fortunately, it is the ultimate scalable digital healthcare innovation solution that can move forward to the next 10 years as a revolution in healthcare.
What does the future of Pakistan look like if every community adopts your initiative?
Every country that lacks access to healthcare because of a shortage of doctors or a country that suffers a similar situation like the “doctor bride phenomena”, where females are not allowed to work after marriage, can adopt this solution to improve their healthcare situation.
The phenomena of doctor brides might be limited to Pakistan, but female doctors not working after marriage can be an issue of so many countries. Surprisingly, 3.5 million people globally have minimal or no access to quality health care—the majority of them belonging to low-income communities. Our main target in 10 years would be the MENA region, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Latin America where there are crises of access to healthcare and females cannot work either.
Right now, Pakistan is in a medical healthcare emergency where we are not doing much in Sustainable Development Goals, so the future of Pakistan looks very unfortunate. We at Sehat Kahani envision to make communities adapt to our system and ensure that every Pakistani has access to healthcare using our app or a clinic. We believe that health is everyone’s right and they should be able to access quality healthcare at all times. It is the only way to a healthy Pakistan which can economically grow at the same time.
What will be the impact of winning the Rolex Awards on your work? What does this Rolex Award mean to you?
The Rolex Awards is an entirely tenable honor to have, especially when your organization is working in the social sector. I believe winning a Rolex Award also adds to our credibility for investors, funders, and partners to contribute financially and non-financially.
The Rolex Award has provided me with the motivation to work harder towards our cause, encouraging us to do more positive work for the communities we operate in and scale our solution successfully, creating an even larger impact.