Cole: With Advanced Technology, Nigeria Can Tackle Wrong Diagnosis

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Over the years, Nigeria’s medical space have been battling with issues of medical tourism, facility decay and inaccurate diagnosis. In this interview with Martins Ifijeh, Chairman, ECHOLAB Radiology and Laboratory Services, Dr. Benson Ayodele Cole, discussed the need for accurate and early diagnosis of non-communicable diseases, how laboratories can leverage on international partnership to bring global standard of service to Nigerians. He also spoke on how his organisation plans to expand its footprints across the geopolitical zones in Nigeria within the next eight years. Excerpts:

The World Health Organization report shows that in the last 10 years, over 5.5 million people died from chronic diseases and this is expected to increase by 24 per cent. How critical is early and accurate diagnosis in healthcare delivery?

The noncommunicable diseases are becoming more problematic today than the communicable diseases. Diseases like cancer, diabetes, and hypertension run on long or short course and if undetected, have devastating effect. Early diagnosis comes in a way of prompt diagnosis to know when the cancer is just budding.

For instance, at an early stage, someone who has a family history of diabetes can be spotted on time so that the individual can ensure lifestyle modification. Today, you discover that the noncommunicable diseases are largely hereditary. Nigeria is contributing a large percentage to the African prevalence rate of these diseases. Therefore, if an individual has a family history of breast cancer for instance, there’s the BRCA gene test that you can do that will tell the percentage probability of coming down with the disease. About three years ago, Angelina Jolie had to remove her two breasts because she comes from a family with 40 per cent chances of coming down with breast cancer later in their years. So early diagnosis ensures that a disease is treatable and well controlled. But when you discover a disease like hypertension when it already damaged the eye, kidney, blood vessels, then the prognosis at that point is poor, same goes for diabetes. That is why in our business we ensure we carry on this campaign to encourage people to check themselves out early enough. Routine medical investigation is key, such that diseases are picked out early and addressed quickly so the individual can have a good quality of life rather than allow complications.

Human errors have been the leading cause of inaccurate diagnosis in Nigeria, what technological measures have you put in place to curtail this?
When you get to the headquarters of our parent company, IDH, you will find a mega lab that is fully automated. We are not saying artificial intelligence should take up the whole process. There will still be that human knowledge coming into play, but to a large extent you remove human error and interference. So, we are leveraging technology in that aspect. We have not gotten to that point where all our processes are fully automated here, but that’s actually where we are going. So at the summit of that 10-year business plan, we will be replicating the sort of practice available in Cairo where you have a mega reference lab that is hundred percent automated.

How strategic is the partnership with International Finance Corporation, MAN Capital and Integrated Diagnostic Holdings in ensuring accessibility to world class medical diagnostic services?

The whole idea was to upscale and provide those things there were hitherto not available as service offerings in the company. Right from the time ECHOSCAN was set up over 20 years ago, it was based on need analysis in the medical industry. We found that we were having teaching hospitals who could not diagnose their patients effectively. Therefore, we went into diagnostic medicine in order to bridge that gap. Having gone in there, we discovered that we don’t have the human and financial resources to provide what Nigeria needed holistically in diagnostic medicine. So, what we did was to bridge that gap further by seeking international participation. The objective was if it can be done abroad, it can be done here. We are not dull people by any stretch of imagination. Therefore, we went out from 2011 to bring in the capacity we were lacking. By December 2014, we signed an agreement with International Finance Corporation and General Electric (GE). So, while the IFC was providing funding, GE was providing support in terms of equipment. But then the gap still existed in that we needed a major stakeholder in diagnostic medicine outside of the country that had proven their worth in their own geography and can replicate that in Nigeria. That was how we had a tie up with Integrated Diagnostic Holdings, which is the only Egyptian company listed on the London Stock Exchange. It’s the largest diagnostic operator in the Middle East as a private organization. It runs over 400 diagnostic labs across Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and now Nigeria. The partnership was to bring that sort of capacity to bear on our business so we can serve Nigerians better, so people don’t need to travel as we often do. You hear about medical tourism; how people go out of the country to get something as simple as medical diagnosis.

ECHOLAB’s long term vision is to open 70 diagnostics centres across the country, what is the roadmap to achieving this vision?

We started the rollout from 2018. We have a 10-year business plan. We are on a trajectory. We are barely two years into the plan. At the end of the ten years, we hope to cover the six geographical zones of the country as many states as possible, and having nothing less than 70 branches across the region. Presently we are running 12 branches and we will be having two more before the close of the year. We are taking diagnostic services closer to the people so that you don’t travel far to have prompt diagnosis of an ailment.

What is your unique selling proposition?

We are promoting ourselves as your preferred option when it comes to medical diagnostics because we are selling quality based on the input being made presently in terms of equipment. Our tagline says ‘Caring Through Technology’. So we are deploying the most advanced technology in the diagnostic space and also bringing the most experienced clinicians in the industry to render the services. We know that once you get it wrong at the diagnosis stage, the treatment will go faulty. We pride ourselves in giving the right diagnosis promptly and in a manner that your doctor can work with so that the ultimate care can be rendered to the patient. This we have been doing for 21 years. The company was registered as ECHOSCAN in 1998 and then the foreign participation came in 2014. Now we can only be better as we now have what it takes to render diagnostic services at international best practice level. Today in the diagnostic industry we have the mom and pop shops all over town. Quality is not guaranteed and that becomes troubling. In a country where people pay out of pocket, there’s every tendency to seek the cheapest care available and the cheapest may not be the best. So, we are here to bridge the gap. We serve with prompt, quality and reliable results you can trust, and be there for you the whole nine yards.

Can you clarify the difference between ECHOSCAN and ECHOLAB?
ECHOSCAN is the parent company. ECHOLAB is a trademark of ECHOSCAN. If you go to Corporate Affairs Commission, what you find is ECHOSCAN Services Limited. Now because of the capacity we are bringing that allows us do more in the laboratory space, we changed the trademark to ECHOLAB. ECHO refers to the radiology part of the practice, while the LAB refers to the pathology part. So the compound name ECHOLAB indicates the areas of medical practice we have focused on which is radiology and pathology.

What measure is ECHOLAB taking to help Nigeria achieve Universal Health Coverage?

The fact is that the disposable income of an average Nigerian is disturbing. Not too long ago, statistics showed the middle class was rising, but poverty level has truncated the progression. People have very little to spend on health. From our own perspective, our services are available to all demographics; from the high & mighty, to the man on the street. Our services are affordable across board. You can walk into any of our facilities and you will be shocked that despite all the technology we have deployed, our services are still affordable when compared with others.