Telecom giant Telenor launches a digital health service for emerging markets

There’s a new company entering the mobile healthcare space in Asia, and it is perhaps an unlikely name. That’s because telecom giant Telenor has launched Tonic, a service that provides basic medical information as well as more sophisticated services.

Tonic has launched first in Bangladesh via Telenor-owned Grameenphone, the country’s largest operator with over 57 million customers.

Bangladesh is the world’s eighth largest country with a population of 168 million people, yet there are just 0.4 doctors per 1,000 people and the World Health Organization estimates that 60 percent of national healthcare spend is not covered by insurance.

Just those two data points alone show that there are plenty of problems to fix. Tonic is aiming to capitalize on the widespread adoption of mobile devices to enable new levels of access to healthcare and more convenient services among the 120 million estimated phone owners.

“There’s a great opportunity in the digital health space,” Sajidur Rahman, CEO of Telenor Health, which runs Tonic, told TechCrunch in an interview. “In a country where almost all people carry a mobile phone, a mobile phone can be a very powerful weapon to help solve problems and make an impact on millions.”

Tonic, a separate company that is wholly owned by Telenor, is initially focused in four main areas. Its ‘Tonic Life’ content portal contains health and illness information, suggestions for positive health change and editorial style content — vetted by doctors — to help catch the attention of Grameenphone subscribers. That’s not unlike the way Google is offering health information in search in India, Brazil and other countries.

There’s also a 24-7 helpline staffed by 30 doctors that enables users to get a very basic diagnosis even if they live far from a doctor, or need information out of hours.

Like other companies that offer additional services beyond those basic blocks — such as Practo and Lybrate, both from India — Tonic includes more advanced options to help increase patient care. Firstly, there’s a cash benefit program that gives users cashback for certain medical expenditures up to four times per year.

Rahman said that, for example, a three-night stay in a hospital could be worth 500 BDT (around $6.35) for a Tonic user. That doesn’t sound a lot, but given that the majority of people are not insured while the minimum salary for a garment worker, for example, is 5,300 BDT per month, it is progress.

Tonic also offers a discount service through which users can find offers for a range of different treatments at hospitals in the country. There are initially 50 partners, but Rahman confirmed there are plans to increase that number.

Initially the service is free and available only for Grameenphone. That latter requirement is unlikely to change, but Rahman explained that the service will move towards a freemium model over time. That won’t happen until a new of new features and more partners are added to the service as it is now.

International expansion is also likely over time, but for now the Telenor Health CEO isn’t giving too many concrete details on that.

“We clearly have the ambition to be in additional markets, [but there’s] nothing specific in mind yet,” he said. “We will look for the right sort of engagement in five to six months in Bangladesh first.”

Tonic sounds much like an m-health startup that a business unit of one of the world’s largest mobile companies. (Norway-based Telenor claims 208 million customers across businesses in 13 countries.) Rahman has a team of 12 full-time staff, with a number of doctors acting as advisors.

“We are operating like a startup, but we are also very careful that we are part of a global brand so very careful about the governance that must happen,” Rahman explained.

This isn’t the first time that Telenor has branched out into digital services. The telecom firm offers a range of mobile banking services in both emerging and first-world countries and initiatives that help industries like agriculture in Asia. With Grameenphone phone the number one operator in Bangladesh by some distance, and Bangladesh itself a hugely challenging market where tech can make a difference, it is not surprising where Tonic is starting out.

Rahman, who is also a director at the Founders Institute in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, sees real promise in the country beyond simply this initiative.

“The domestic market is huge [and if you] look at the challenges, there are clearly opportunities for startups. This is clearly a market where there is a lot talent and hunger to build businesses, the ecosystem is clearly growing very fast,” he said.