Mastercard Is Curing Hepatitis C — With The Power Of Payments

Regular readers know that payments — and unlocking the power of them — are capable of doing a whole host of amazing things.  It’s no real surprise that at a publication called PYMNTS, we are big fans of, well, payments used in that way.

But even at our most enthusiastic, we also acknowledge that there are things that better access to better payments can’t really do. For example, if you’d asked last week, we probably would have told you that payments are probably not ever, directly, going to play a starring role in curing the world of horrific diseases.

We would have been wrong.

Because last week, Mastercard inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Gilead Sciences, Inc. to explore how to use the Mastercard Aid Network to simplify the delivery of hepatitis C treatments in those countries with limited resources.  The Mastercard Aid Network is the card network’s in-house technology solution designed to streamline the distribution of humanitarian aid for individual donors, NGOs and not-for-profit organizations.  Its secret sauce is that it works in the absence of payments or telecommunications infrastructure, enabling at-need populations in remote locations to secure basic necessities through local merchants with the dip or tap of a card.

And, as Leigh Amaro, senior vice president of Enterprise Partnerships at Mastercard, told Karen Webster in a recent interview — given their past successes in using the aid network with campaigns like Save the Children, it became obvious that the infrastructure could also be really useful in a broader application.

“We saw there were some common use cases as we looked into healthcare, and a really great opportunity to do some ground breaking work,” Amaro noted. “If you think about malaria and a host of other diseases, this technology can really make a difference in helping distributing medical care to high need populations. We are starting with Hep C, but there many opportunities to deploy.”

So why start with Hepatitis C, how will the program work — and what’s next?

So Why Start With Hep C?

That was among Webster’s questions for Amaro as Mastercard is gearing up to launch the new pilot program.  It is certainly a very serious condition, she noted — but it is one of very many in the world, so how did they chose it over, say, one of those other use cases — like malaria.

Amaro noted that Hep C in many ways is an ideal starting point — insofar as one can describe a fatal disease of the liver as ideal in any sense.  First of all, an awful lot of people worldwide suffer from this condition — about 150 million — and the vast majority of patients live in economically developing areas in nations that have no treatment programs at all available.

Hepatitis C also has the benefit of being actually completely curable — three months of pills and a follow up visit are enough to mean most patients are done with the disease for life.

“For a lot of other conditions — say HIV/AIDS, there are treatments that are great —  but they are lifetime treatments for patients. Hep C is curable.”

A disease that one can fight to an actual victory is important — particularly when one is building a program and working with donors who are actually greatly motivated by a winnable battle where they can follow a patient’s digital journey to a restored health finish line.

So how does that getting there work?

How It Works

The details of the program are still being worked out in advance of the launch of a pilot — but Amaro notes, some early details are that it is 100 percent consistent with the way the Aid Network functions today.

“What we can do with our technology is take money that donors wish to allocate to this cause and convert it into a points-based currency that gets issued to the individuals seeking treatment. We are then able to ask those individuals to use the Network to transact — paying, say, one point for a doctor’s visit — or five points for filling a prescription. We can use our infrastructure to enable these otherwise non-financial services functions.

The Mastercard Aid Network today is an offline closed loop network. Obviously, for this system to work, doctors, labs and pharmacies must have devices that are capable of taking these points-based payments from Mastercard — and Amaro noted a lot of the initial work will be in equipping their partners to do that.  The goal is that all of this ability will soon come in a plug-and-play app, no special equipment needed, just an Android device capable of running it.

As for the system itself — those details are still under development. Amaro told Webster that the most likely design will probably see a large charitable foundation actually move the funding source into the Aid Network while Mastercard will take charge of loading the cards appropriately for those who need them and managing the payments settlement once said cards are tapped for treatment.

The advantages to this system are myriad.  For one thing, Amaro notes, it ensures that money donated for Hepatitis C treatment actually goes toward that end. Cash gets converted to points, which can be used for one thing and one thing only: getting treatment for the disease.

Moreover, she noted, it gives the network a chance to efficiently manage disbursements.

“We have the ability to time stamp these cards so they can be fully loaded with all funds necessary for treatment, but programmed to only release funds or points along with a certain treatment schedule. You can still see the full kitty, without a full release.”

And, because they can really see all those individual transactions, Amaro noted, the Aid Network is setup to do more than just distribute medical help — it is also in a position to improve how it is distributed.

Building A Better Patient (With The Magic Of A Loyalty Program)

The ability to load points and guide customers to a medical professional has a benefit that might not be obvious at first, Amaro told Webster — it allows them to see points at which the treatment isn’t going right.

Patients with Hep C have a problem familiar to anyone who has ever taken antibiotics for 24 hours, felt better and then didn’t want to take the next seven days’ worth of pills.

“You can cure Hep C in three months.  The problem is that it is like antibiotics — after two months, you feel awesome, and you stop taking the pills. In order to encourage people to stick with the treatment, we need to be able to see where they are dropping out — because with better awareness, we can keep more people on the journey to wellness.”

Points on the card are useful in a few ways. First, they remind patients they have treatments still to get. Second, they take the cost factor out of the equation. Finally, they trigger that same feeling all customers have when they have points on a gift card just sitting there — a strong desire to actually get rid of those points.

“This card can be used to incentivize doing the right thing in getting the full treatment and the cure test that is need a few months after treatment is done.  We see this points currency as a way of payment — but also as a loyalty method where we can help push patients to do the behaviors we want them to do. We are solving for settlement — but also using loyalty so that we can get the win-win-win. Doctors get paid, donors are satisfied their help made a difference and the patients actually get better.”

The world, particularly when it comes to treating life-threatening diseases, doesn’t offer a lot of “win-win-wins,” and Amaro noted they are working quickly to pounce on this one.

Very quickly — as in, they hope to have a pilot up and off the ground by Q2 2017.

It’s a big goal — but then, with 150 million people waiting for life saving treatment, speed, notes Amaro, is a pretty big deal.


New PYMNTS Report: Preventing Financial Crimes Playbook – July 2020 

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