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GIST Advantage: Tackling Health Care Inequality in Pakistan

December 05, 2017

There are situations and moments that sting when we reflect on them – no matter how much time passes. Iffat, who is now the co-founder of an E-Health startup called Sehat Kahani shares her experience of meeting a patient at the first E-Health clinic she helped open 3 years back. Iffat met a woman who was seeking fertility help. 

“She seemed very hopeful with the opening of the clinic,” recalled Iffat.

During her consultation, the woman said she had been having trouble conceiving for more than a decade. She had been seeking fertility treatment, even undergoing a major surgery a few years earlier to improve her chances of conceiving. The woman explained to Iffat that at the time of her surgery, doctors told her once she healed she would be able to conceive.

But when Iffat looked through the woman’s health report, she said her heart sank. The woman had unknowingly undergone a hysterectomy. Her doctors had lied to her about the surgery, which prevents her from ever conceiving a child.

“This devastated me so much because I could not imagine what kind of ill-qualified doctors or quacks she had been going to who instead of treating her for infertility actually took her whole system out without even telling her,” said Iffat. “This incidence is locked in my mind and has always reaffirmed to me in my mind that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Iffat said the reaffirmation helped fuel her drive – aiming to be the first line of care for people who need help, such as the woman who came into her clinic seeking fertility treatment.

Iffat’s passion to make a positive impact starts with her paternal grandparents in rural Pakistan. She said as a family of humble means, they worked hard to save enough money to send Iffat’s father to a university. Iffat inherited that same determination, although her future faced more than financial challenges.

Describing her family as “broken,” Iffat remembers how her mother’s family believed she would "not amount to much," and she said her father’s family believed her future should be shaped by a more traditional family role. But Iffat wanted to become a doctor – and while she did not have the support of her family, she had the support of her father.

“I didn’t have a fancy car or fancy clothes; all I had was a determination to be someone one day, to prove to the world that I existed,” she said.

After graduating from medical school, Iffat worked at a pharmaceutical but felt she could do more to combat gender and financial inequalities in Pakistani health care. So she left her job to work at a  health insurance company. It was here, Iffat said, she realized how she would give back to her community.

“I met my then partners who were piloting an amazing and innovative idea of recruiting home-based female physicians and connecting them to the marginalized communities and I fell in love with this instantly,” said Iffat.

Iffat then joined DoctHERs as a cofounder; a startup that used telemedicine to connect women doctors to some of the most underserved communities in Pakistan. She said the startup not only empowered women who would otherwise be unable to practice medicine, but it also offered an affordable health care solution to poor communities.

In February 2017, DoctHERs underwent an amicable demerger. Sehat Kahani, created by Iffat and her co-founder Sara Khurram, acquired the startup’s clinical operations.

Currently Sehat Kahani operates 14 tele-health clinics around Pakistan serving more than 40,000 patients. Iffat adds that in the last two years, the work of her team has enabled and impacted another 350,000 lives.

But growth of their tele-medicine startup has not been easy, she said, particularly in a country that has such staggering disparities between the rich and poor, men and women.

“Working in the communities in the health care space, particularly for women, is challenging in itself. Conservative communities often find it difficult to understand what their women are going through in terms of health care and the women keep on suffering in despair,” said Iffat. “Participation in GIST enabled us to develop the right strengths, the right tools and set of information needed to seek people’s attention in order to change the status quo.”

Sehat Kahani and Iffat have gained international attention for the work both are doing for women in medicine. Iffat has spoken at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, she has attended entrepreneurship training at MIT and most recently she and co-founder Khurram were featured in a BBC documentary focused on Sehat Kahani. Iffat also used the connections she made during the GIST Tech-I competition to advocate for more women doctors during a discussion at the United States consulate in Pakistan.

Moving forward, Sehat Kahani is looking for more funding in order to scale. The startup is also developing a mobile app for middle and upper income women to have access to health care as well. By 2020, Iffat and her team hope to open 50 more clinics, reaching some six million people at the clinics and another 3 million people through their mobile application.

Iffat too is getting growth opportunities of her own. She has received a full scholarship to get a master’s in global e-health from the University of Edinburgh. She is hoping her master’s degree will help her expand e-health in Pakistan.

Reflecting on her own journey, from medical school student to health care advocate, Iffat points to one opportunity that helped her grow as an entrepreneur: GIST Tech-I. For Iffat, the competition did more than provide resources, connections and training -- it gave her the confidence to advocate for herself, her startup and the patients she serves in Pakistan.

“It gave me the boost and the confidence to be able to stand in front of the crowd and speak my heart out while talking about my work,” Iffat said. “It was definitely a turning point in my life and I have never turned back ever since.”

Applications for the 2018 GIST Tech-I are currently open. If you want to showcase your startup on a global stage and compete for seed capital, click here.

Photo Credit: Facebook | Sehat Kahani