Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Enterprise sits down with Vezeeta CEO Amir Barsoum, Chief Products Officer Mohamed El Mougi

Vezeeta doubles down on epharma delivery: With e-commerce and e-delivery taking center stage, digital healthcare platform Vezeeta announced yesterday (pdf) that it is the latest entrant in the pharma and meds delivery space, with the official launch of Vezeeta Pharmacy. The service allows patients to book a teleconsultation session with top notch GPs or specialists in Egypt through the app, get consulted by the doctor, get a prescription on the app, and with one click, order the needed medication and get it delivered. In short, it’s an entirely remote interaction from booking the consultation all the way through receiving the medication. Vezeeta ePharmacy has been in the works since February 2020, and served over 1 mn patients since its soft launch in August. 

Vezeeta is planning to invest some USD 25 mn this year on its new services and to bolster its tech infrastructure, founder and CEO Amir Barsoum said yesterday.

Enterprise had a chat with Barsoum and Chief Product Officer Mohamed El Mougi on the new product, and why the company has made it a priority in the last year. Barsoum and El Mougi sounded off on why e-prescription needs to be a mainstay in the post-covid era and what the government can do to spur its development on the regulatory framework. 

Also on the menu: The company’s plans going forward and whether it is looking at expansions, exits, or potential acquisitions. Vezeeta got a lot of ink last year for raising a USD 40 mn series D round, bringing its total raised capital to USD 63 mn in total. What started out as a directory of doctors in Egypt, now facilitates consultation bookings for over 6 mn patients in several countries.

Key highlights of our talk include:

  • No IPO in sight yet, but maybe some M&A;
  • Vezeeta turned profitable in 2020;
  • Demand-forecasting tool for pharmacies in the works;
  • E-prescription should become a mainstay in healthcare in Egypt;
  • Global telehealth is the future.

Vezeeta entered the med delivery market because it is an integral part of the outpatient journey of patients, Barsoum told us. We want to avail data and information to patients to help them decide on what to do, and provide the sector with tools to facilitate interactions in the industry through tech. 

Vezeeta Pharmacy brings together the complete journey of remote healthcare with the help of AI, El-Mougi said. Patients can also search for the meds they want delivered by taking a photo of the prescription or the pack. There is also the option of calling a pharmacist, who is hired by Vezeeta, to help with ordering the desired medication.  

Machine learning isn’t just about using flashy tech — there are several AI models Vezeeta has applied, including patient-provider matchmaking in the consultation area where we match doctors to patients according to their profile, he added. Another is medication compliance in the ePharmacy section, which means identifying which patients are most likely to be non-adherent to the medication and thus help them comply via reminders through different channels and motivational incentive programs. Lastly, we optimize delivery routes of our own couriers, which is key for good unit economics. 

Given our focus on chronic patients, we have a rigid demand-forecasting tool, El Mougi highlighted. Partner pharmacies get notified about which medication is needed in the future based on the demand of chronic patients on the app. These pharmacies can then order enough stock of the medication, in order to avoid shortages. Moreover, patients will soon be able to add insurance preferences and information to the app, after which Vezeeta handles the claim process with the insurance company. Two insurance companies are already on-board. 

And one thing is certain: The data of our patients is anonymous, he assures. We’re HIPAA-compliant (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), so no one — literally no one — at Vezeeta knows who the ordering patient is. What we do collect is age, gender, symptoms, diagnosis and prescribed drugs. 

Is automatic diagnosis in the plan down the line? Yes, but we’re still working on it, the chief product officer revealed. One of our dreams is to work with top notch doctors on teleconsultations, take their learnings and integrate them on an automated symptom checker for primary diagnosis. Final diagnosis is a very long journey, though. 

Will this make doctors obsolete in the long-run? Probably not, El Mougi says. It will never replace doctors, but rather help them do their job in a more efficient manner. If they receive the symptoms up ahead, it will give them more time per consultation and e-prescriptions will also inform them about possible drug interaction based on the patient’s history of medication usage. 

We’re fully compliant with current regulations, Barsoum said. Vezeeta depends 100% on its partner pharmacies and pharmacists, which are all licensed. In our conversations with regulators, it is evident that the government is quite adaptive and responsive to innovation and solutions in the market that accelerate quality. 

In order to improve the quality of healthcare, we oblige our partner pharmacies to depend on licensed pharmacists, instead of assistants; a major issue in the Egyptian market, according to Barsoum. Additionally, minimum wages for pharmacists and adoption of technology are key prerequisites for us working together. Pharmacies cannot be doing business the same way they used to 100 years ago and hence, need to adapt — and that is what we are encouraging. These guidelines will improve their top and bottom line, even if it won’t seem that way in the first three or four months. 

If there’s one thing lawmakers need to work with, it’s that e-prescriptions are no longer a luxury in 2021, he emphasized. The market is in dire need for these kinds of regulations. We are pretty heavy on automating and digitizing prescriptions, and allowing doctors to actually move away from traditional paper. Not using e-prescriptions should be penalized, because it reduces errors and provides medical data, which is something the Egyptian market lacks. It can also highlight possible interactions between different drugs the patient is taking, drug allergies, drug history etc. All this could actually be captured in e-prescription tools, which we’re going to introduce to the market very soon. 

Pandemic-laden 2020 was the year Vezeeta turned profitable — and that is not directly correlated to the impact of covid developments on the P&Ls, Barsoum said. It’s rather a year in which we introduced smarter economic interactions with our partners, while the volume of business grew to a profitable level. On the top line, Egypt itself 2x-ed.

But covid definitely did help us introduce new products to the market, like telehealth and online consultations, and the ePharmacy product, but they did not add much value to the P&Ls yet, he added. The pandemic is still expected to stay with us until the middle of this year, which could be of tremendous value, as we are planning to expand the pharmacy and telehealth solutions in markets that are in dire need of them.

We don’t raise funds to survive anymore, but for the coming year, acquisitions are definitely on the radar, Barsoum explained. We’re looking at different smaller players for partnerships or even potential M&A activities. But an IPO is not in the pipeline this year. 

We’ve done a lot in 2020 and will probably pull the brakes for a bit, he said. We are already operating in Jordan, KSA, Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt. There are no plans to expand into other countries at this point, but rather turn the existing ones into solid operations. For 2021, we are focused on solidifying the business, investing more in our technology, making sure that the product is a delightful experience, and introducing high quality solutions to the partners in the sector, be it hospitals, labs, doctors, or pharma companies.

We also want to introduce what we internally call “global telehealth,” Barsoum said. We have phenomenal doctors in Egypt who are quite affordable to the African population. However, the number of doctors per capita in Africa is very low. Hence, helping the African population get in touch with Egyptian doctors via teleconsultation is of tremendous value.

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