While the global pandemic continues to sweep through the MENA region, telehealth platforms are poised to expand and possibly even alleviate pressure on healthcare systems.
“The pandemic has been a wake-up call for the healthcare industry in the MENA region and has made it clear that our local governments, healthcare providers and communities need to be better placed to respond to such crises,” said Amir Barsoum, founder and CEO of Vezeeta, a telehealth platform.
So far, the MENA region has recorded more than 600,000 confirmed infectious cases, including more than 16,000 deaths. According to the World Bank, COVID-19 threatens the supply of and demand for other essential health services in a region, especially in countries already burdened with non-communicable diseases caused by poverty, violence, humanitarian crises, and inequality.
Since March, most MENA countries have imposed either partial or full lockdowns hoping to flatten the curve of new infections.
“In an environment of panic and uncertainty, we enabled patients to get medical consultations from the safety of their homes, which led to our daily average telehealth consultation requests in Egypt rising by 98 percent in April versus March, while Saudi telehealth calls rose by a staggering 225 percent,” said Barsoum.
The World Health Organization defines telehealth as the “delivery of healthcare services where patients and providers are separated by distance,” and which uses information and communication technology for “the exchange of information for the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and injuries, research and evaluation, and for the continuing education of health professionals.”
Launched in 2012, Vezeeta is a digital healthcare platform that serves patients in six countries: Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan, and Kenya. The Vezeeta App allows patients to book instantaneous appointments with healthcare providers and rate their experience.
The enterprise has raised $63 million in five funding rounds since its inception. As soon as the pandemic hit, the Dubai-based firm began to diversify its portfolio. In March, Vezeeta launched a telehealth solution (initially scheduled for June 2020) whereby patients could receive remote consultations and medication in the safety of their homes.
“Within the first month, the product generated more than 30,000 calls and led to the development of Vezeeta’s complete digital healthcare concierge, including video teleconsultations supported by online payment options, home visits, and online medication ordering and delivery,” said Barsoum.
Investors for startups
According to a 2019 report by MAGNiTT, telehealth startups have seen increased investment activity in the MENA region in the last five years, and the industry has attracted $21 million, accounting for 3 percent of the total funding raised in the region in 2019. E-health entrepreneurs expect this meagre funding share to rise in the near future.
“We’re seeing a growing interest from investors and government entities to speed the uptake of virtual healthcare solutions, “said Barsoum. “That would not only ensure large-scale deployment of quality medical care, but also lessen the burden of hospitals and frontline workers, who are stretched to their limits at the moment.”
Vezeeta has recently signed a partnership deal with the Egyptian government to launch a nation-wide campaign whereby millions of Egyptians will be offered free remote consultations to help detect suspected COVID-19 cases.
The coronavirus crisis has not only benefited well-established digital medicine platforms; the change in healthcare behaviour of MENA patients is also to the advantage of newcomers. Doctoriapp hit the Bahraini market in April, right in the midst of the pandemic, as the country’s first licensed telehealth company. With a network that includes more than 110 Bahrain-based physicians, Doctoriapp allows patients to request video consultations, free follow-ups, and storage of all their medical records.
In less than a month’s time, the startup could attract 500 consultations, a significant development in the small Arab island country with a population of less than two million, according to Ahmed AlAwadhi, COO and co-founder of Doctoriapp. “In April, during the peak of the pandemic, we received more consultation [requests] more than any private hospital in Bahrain,” he said.
According to AlAwadhi, the startup has secured six-digit, funding and a second investment deal is expected to be closed within the next five months. He added that the company plans to expand soon into the neighboring—and more populated—Gulf countries. “Bahrain is a small market. It is a testing market. Our aim is to jump to Saudi Arabia and expand there as soon as possible.”
Besides sparing patients, the trouble of visiting a clinic, telehealth offers financial benefits. “It’s also extremely cost-effective, as the average face-to-face consultation is easily four times more expensive than a teleconsultation,” said Vezeeta’s Barsoum.
According to Global Markets Insights, the size of the global telemedicine market was valued at $45 billion in 2019 and is expected to hit a 19.3 percent CAGR from 2020 to 2026 to reach $175 billion.
“Telemedicine is not only here to stay, but it will expand; the coronavirus has just put telemedicine on the map,” said AlAwadhi. “It made people aware of it.”
The Lebanese startup ecosystem saw an increase of 18% in startup deals between 2018 and 2019, with 45 deals taking place. While the number of investments has gone up, the majority of these involve Early-Stage companies. Discover more details in our 2019 Lebanon Venture Investment Report.