Cheaper medicines - an unexpected user

Sometimes you can't anticipate how your work is going to be used. Here is a story that really motivates me to continue doing what we do.

To Whom It May Concern,

It is with sadness that I not that your medicine price registry website is no longer working.

The site was a powerful tool in my medical practice, it really helped me to work out treatments that my patients could afford.

I’d like to know if the website will be coming back online anytime soon.

Thank you very much for your efforts in general.

What a way to find out that someone is using a tool that you built.

Sometime last year, I developed a simple application that took a little known dataset from the Department of Health website and wrapped it into an easy-to-use format which allowed patients to make sure that they weren’t being overcharged by their pharmacies.

Through personal use, I realised that the real benefit of the tool was for consumers to find cheaper alternatives to their medicines. My canned elevator pitch when describing what the application does was: “Imagine standing in the queue at the pharmacy waiting to fill your prescription. You take out your cellphone and quickly look up your medicine on this tool and find generic alternatives which are often much cheaper than the branded medicine.”

I personally saved myself thousands of rands using the tool. This application has been described ad nauseam here and here. The application didn’t get picked up nor did we do much to advertise it.

Then, during an upgrade of our systems, the website fell over. Sadly, no-one noticed, not even us.

That was when the email arrived. After further probing, I received this response:

I’m glad to hear it will be back up soon.

Actually, one of my own patients let me know about it. It very quickly became a must-use website for me. I work in a mixed-income neighbourhood and being able to figure out what works for my patients’ budgets is extremely helpful - there’s is no point in prescribing medicine that the patient cannot afford to buy.

Please keep up the good work.

Wow. It’s not the pat on the back that thrills me, but rather that our work has actually hit the mark. Patients are getting cheaper medicines because of this tool. More than that, it is a use-case that I never expected. I always imagined a patient (probably middle-to-upper middle class) using the tool to save a few bucks. It never occurred to me that a doctor would use it to save money for his patients. In retrospect it is obvious, but certainly not what I expected.

This tool epitomises the essence of what Code for South Africa is all about. Take some complex data. Simplify it, package it and deliver it in a way that an end user would find useful. To make a better, more informed decision.

This email has re-ignited my enthusiasm for this tool. The next step is to start marketing it to doctors who can use it for their patients.