By Ahmed Gabr
Inconsistencies have always plagued access to healthcare services in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region. A report released as part of The World Bank Health Nutrition and Population Sector strategy for Mena (2013-2018), says that these inconsistencies can manifest as glaring disparities between the availability of healthcare services in rural and urban areas, as well as in poor urban settlements and wealthy neighbourhoods. Urban women, for example, are twice as likely to have access to contraceptives and a skilled attendant at birth compared to their rural counterparts.
However, technology can bridge this access gap in various innovative ways. Online services enabling patients to book doctor appointments from the comfort of their homes and initial trials of telemedicine services have been growing in popularity in many countries across the region.
“The digital transformation of healthcare in Mena is coming, and that's for sure. But it may take more than five years to make sure all stakeholders and services are digitised and to educate the public about it,” says Rasha Rady, co-founder and chief operating officer (COO) at Chefaa, an Egyptian e-pharmacy service where people can order and schedule regular deliveries for the medications they need.
From Cancer to Business
Solutions that make life easier could prove to be game-changers for both cancer survivors and entrepreneurs in Egypt and beyond. Doaa Aref, Chefaa’s other co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO), is a cancer survivor whose struggle inspired her and Rady to launch the company.
Aref was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2017. During her treatment, she hoped she could safely order and pay for her medicine online. Regular telephone-based pharmacy deliveries never worked out for her: sometimes, she was unable to find what she needed, and at other times, she ended up getting the wrong medicine.
Having recovered, she decided to take matters into her own hands. Teaming up with Rady, Aref founded Chefaa in April 2018. The e-pharmacy service, which is free to use both on desktops and mobile devices, allows people to search for medicines, prescription drugs and personal care products. In their profiles, users can scan a prescription, place an order, pay online or opt for the cash-on-delivery method, and schedule regular deliveries of refills for chronic condition medications. The platform also features a reminders app, which can be configured to alert patients when it is time for their daily medicine dose. It can additionally send automated reminders about the availability of recurring medications and notify users when to place refill orders.
Disrupting Brick & Mortar
Little has changed in the way the retail pharmacy business in Mena operates, making the sector ripe for innovation. According to Chefaa’s founders, the most challenging part of launching the venture was giving pharmacies the right incentive to sign up to the service since the company’s business model is based on charging them a commission fee for every transaction.
In an attempt to diversify the revenue stream, the team is looking to introduce a subscription plan for pharmaceutical companies and medical organisations to gain access to medication sales insights.
“It's important that all stakeholders in [the] healthcare sector understand that it was never about the cost, but it's all about being cost-effective,” Rady says. “We aim to help chronic patients have safe and sustained access to their recurring medicine and help decision makers with data-driven solutions using our AI structure,” she says.
As of the end of May 2019, Chefaa has fulfilled more than 77,000 orders across nine cities in Egypt in collaboration with more than 800 pharmacies. The company plans to expand to the GCC region by 2020.
“E-pharmacies are inevitable,” says Wael Kabli, CEO of Cura, a Mena smartphone app for remote medical consultations.
However, it will take time and considerable efforts for them to prevail, according to Kabli. “For prescribed medications, verification, consents and dispensing [remain] unsolved issues,” he says.
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