In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis and resulting lockdown, it is not just the global economy and healthcare systems that are suffering dreadfully, but individuals suffering from other illnesses and ailments too. Amid the lockdown, going to the doctor for a check up is no longer feasible for many and so the only viable solution is online healthcare.
Globally, in the first quarter of 2020, $4.5 billion was invested in health innovation funding “before the markets began their pandemic-induced decline,” according to a report from Startup Health. Regionally, UAE-based Okadoc and Egypt-based Vezeeta were among the top healthtech companies attracting investments in the first quarter this year with an aggregate of $50 million.
The crisis has already inflicted drastic changes to healthcare systems around the world and has kicked off a digital makeover of the industry in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena).
Current State of Healthtech
While there has been a significant improvement in the growth and investment towards the healthtech in Mena, the sector “is only scratching the surface of the problems facing the healthcare system”, according to Sajjad Kamal, co-founder and chief technology officer at healthtech startup AlemHealth, which provides digital health solutions.
“If you look at the Middle East, there are primarily two types of healthtech companies: telemedicine and doctor booking companies,” says Kamal who attributes this to the fact that most entrepreneurs working on healthcare solutions mainly come from a digital background.
“As entrepreneurs, they have been airing towards a bit on the digital side. A lot of them actually have not spent much time in the actual care delivery process,” he says.
Consumerisation has been the prevalent trend in healthtech in the past few years, with patients being treated as consumers, this has led to a barrage of startups focused more on convenience and efficiency rather than innovation.
One of the main causes of this issue was the lack of early-stage funding and investors interested in healthtech.
Medicus AI, which was founded in Dubai, but relocated to Austria soon after its founder did so to attract “smart money”
“When I started Medicus AI, most of the team was based in the Middle East between Dubai and Beirut, but the lack of funding and strong business opportunities, made us decide to move the company to Europe,” says founder Baher Al Hakim, “The investment sector was not as interested in healthtech as Europe was.”
Medicus AI recently launched a Covid-19 health monitoring app in partnership with Luxembourg-based BioneXT LAB, a medical analysis laboratory. The app is named CoVive and is now available in English and Arabic.
AlemHealth also suffered a similar fate.
“When we were pitching our idea in Dubai, a lot of the investors were just not familiar with what healthtech is and what kind of opportunities really exist, hence, we moved to Singapore, where there lies a much more mature market,” recounts Kamal.
On the other side, Principal at Hikma Ventures, the Corporate Venture Capital arm of Jordan-based Hikma Pharmaceuticals, Hamzeh Abdul-Hadi argues that there is a need for more innovative companies in the digital health space in Mena. However, as demand for and adoption of the healthcare services has surged, he argues that VC investments in healthtech startups will increase.
There has been a heightened interest in the healthtech startups, mostly in telemedicine during the past few months," says Abdulhad, who remains sceptical that VC appetite for investments overall will continue in the foreseeable future.
“Before the crisis hit us, investors had probably done the research and analysis based on the previous state of the healthtech ecosystem. So they need to look to re-evaluate opportunities again in this space that are likely to catch-on during and after the crisis,” explains Al Hakim, suggesting that it is high time for governments to put in funds to help spur the growth of the healthtech companies.
The Impact of Covid-19
As people become more comfortable with using healthtech services In response to the pandemic, there is likely to be a surge in telemedicine, remote monitoring, and home testings in the coming period, according to Al Hakim while Abdulhadi expects there will be a spike in digital therapeutics and mental health companies in the second half of this year.
One mental health company has already seen a surge in demand. Egypt-based Shezlong, has registered a 31 per cent in the number of therapy sessions booked on its platform from February to March, alongside a rise in the number of psychiatrists looking to join its platform since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“Previously, many psychiatrists were reluctant to conduct therapy sessions online; things have changed now with the closure of clinics nationwide as a result of the Covid-19 crisis,” says Mohamed El-Shami, co-founder and chief medical officer at Shezlong.
The pandemic has also forced doctors and hospitals to accelerate their digitisation plans.
“It serves as a wake up call for doctors to start ditching the traditional approach to medicine practice and be more open to digital disruption,” says Kamal who believes the current situation has enabled a spirit of collaboration within the sector.
”Taking a collaborative approach to tackle the crisis becomes necessary more than any time before. It is high time for tackling the healthcare system problems through a collaborative approach where doctors can join forces with data scientists, entrepreneurs and other stakeholders concerned with the digital health ecosystem,” says Kamal.
Vezeeta’s co-founder and CEO Amir Barsoum argues that the current situation will help doctors establish a robust medical experience without shouldering extra costs.
“As for telehealth, doctors benefit from the opportunity to work remotely from any convenient location and reach out to a wider patient-base across their country. Doctors can grow their clinical practice without adding on additional staff or physical locations, and monetise on remote consultations with a personalised experience, cutting down on waiting time and no-shows, making it a lucrative tool for all modern healthcare entities,” he says.