CEO Middle East

COVER STORY: OKADOC

Making it easier for patients and doctors to connect is his worthiest endeavour to date, says Okadoc founder Fodhil Benturqia

- BY JOLA CHUDY

DDIGITAL ACCELERATI­ON IN THE PAST SIX MONTHS HAS BEEN SO FAST THAT we scarcely even have the adequate buzzwords to describe it. ‘Digital transforma­tion’ seems almost a passé way to talk about how quickly technology has been co-opted, adapted, upgraded, made obsolete, made indispensi­ble and become an enmeshed part of business 2020 in ways that were never imagined never before.

Just as species adapt and evolve to respond to the demands of their environmen­ts, businesses too have had to face the stark reality that if they don’t, well then quite frankly, they’re toast.

Luckily for the enterprise­s helmed by technology and ecommerce maven Fodhil Benturquia, that doesn’t seem to be an issue. Quite the opposite. With a Who’s Who of regional digital start-up success stories to his name – from Marka VIP, which he co-founded in 2010, to Noon. com, where he was CEO, to Souq.com, of which he was General Manager until 2015, Benturquia has a stellar track record in identifyin­g gaps in the market, and then filling them with strong, user-focused digital solutions.

Okadoc is his latest venture, and it seeks to revolution­ise the medical industry. Okadoc, which was named Start-up of the Year at annual Arabian Business Start-up Awards, connects healthcare providers and doctors with their patients. Patients can use okadoc. com to find doctors across more than 130 specialtie­s based on location, language spoken, insurance and availabili­ty. It also helps practition­ers; clinics and hospitals reduce ‘no-shows’ by up to 75 per cent, optimise their bookings, attract and engage new patients.

Notes Benturquia: “It’s incredible to see how digital change is accelerati­ng. It took the likes of Amazon and Booking. com 25 to 30 years to reach where they are today; Uber took around half that time to redefine ride-hailing. Today, these accelerati­ons are happening even faster. What is accelerati­ng the speed of adoption is that today, almost everything is already digital. We communicat­e via Whatsapp; we buy our products online. There are so many industries that are completely different today to a decade ago. Who buys physical airplane tickets? Today, if an industry is not online, it’s actually just annoying for the customer.”

Customer – or in the case of Okadoc, the patient. The medical industry has been one of the slower industries when it comes to adopting the latest digital solutions. For obvious reasons, its focus on technology is geared towards its primary purpose, which is treating patients, and in the UAE especially, patients are generally fortunate to enjoy the latest when it comes to medical equipment and tools. But one area where innovation was conspicuou­s by its absence was the customer experience especially at the initial touchpoint.

Technology and timing

“Uber took off around 2010 for a simple reason,” notes Benturquia. “Smartphone batteries and networks had previously not been long-lasting enough. 3G handsets then became more powerful. That allowed mobile tracking for drivers and riders. The innovation in the hardware and software enabled new concepts to grow. When it comes to healthcare, I think it’s just an industry that’s focused so much on internal technologi­es, but simply missed the interactio­n between provider and patient.”

Even today, the healthcare sector is still largely reliant on phone calls; even emails between doctor and patient remain somewhat outside the norm. To the entreprene­urial Benturquia, it presented a golden opportunit­y.

“It took me 15 minutes of calls once, and I still didn’t get an appointmen­t,” he says, recalling his ‘Eureka’ moment. It was 2017, and Benturquia was heavily active in ecommerce and logistics. The challenges of building a complete ecommerce environmen­t were formidable: transporta­tion, stock, logistics, fulfilment

warehousin­g, not to mention the frontend interface.

Appointmen­t bookings for doctor surgeries seemed almost straightfo­rward by comparison. And the healthcare industry resonated with Benturquia for its loftier purpose than simply satisfying a consumeris­t itch.

“This was during normal working hours; if I had made a call at 8pm, I wouldn’t even have been able to speak to anyone. For me, being in the digital world and a consumer, I book my cars, my tickets, my carwash in seconds over the phone. I realised then that healthcare had not caught up with other industries. It seemed like an amazing problem to solve.”

Accelerati­on during Covid-19

It seems almost ironic, but when Coronaviru­s and the lockdown started, it led to fewer illnesses, injuries and deaths. With people not in contact with each other in schools, malls or workplaces, and with fewer cars on the roads leading to fewer accidents, many clinics and hospitals saw patient numbers dwindle dramatical­ly. This provided an unexpected opportunit­y for Okadoc.

Online bookings through Okadoc allow providers to save costs, improve efficiency and offer 24-hour functional­ity, as well as allowing hospitals and clinics to save the overhead costs of traditiona­l physical callcentre­s. The uptake during the first half of 2020 grew thanks to the unexpected challenges of a global pandemic.

“For us, the patient experience is everything. We want the process to be seamless, avoiding a clinic having to phone the patient back to confirm. This has to be like ecommerce – you put in your details, and the purchase arrives. That was the difficult part, to convince the providers that we could integrate with their systems. We invested so much in ensuring our technology was advanced in terms of scalabilit­y and security. Connecting a hospital system has its challenges but isn’t as complicate­d as sending a rocket to the moon!”

He describes the experience of signing their first client, a small clinic as a “moment of pure joy.”

“IT’S INCREDIBLE TO SEE HOW DIGITAL CHANGE IS ACCELERATI­NG. IT TOOK THE LIKES OF AMAZON AND BOOKING.COM 25 TO 30 YEARS TO REACH WHERE THEY ARE TODAY; UBER TOOK AROUND HALF THAT TIME TO REDEFINE RIDEHAILIN­G. TODAY, THESE ACCELERATI­ONS ARE HAPPENING EVEN FASTER.” - FODHIL BENTURQUIA, FOUNDER, OKADOC.”

“IN ITSELF, OKADOC’S GROWTH IN 2020 IS AN IMPRESSIVE ACHIEVEMEN­T, BUT IT ALSO STANDS AS A NOTABLE EXAMPLE OF HOW A BUSINESS CAN ACHIEVE EXPANSION AND EXCEED GROWTH TARGETS EVEN WITH CHALLENGES THAT MOST INDUSTRIES PERCEIVE AS DETRIMENTA­L TO BUSINESS.”

“We expected that it would take a long time to see this being adopted, because even just the online appointmen­t idea was taking time,” says Benturquia. As with any innovative technology, early adoption can be one of the most difficult parts of the process. “Changing the habits of healthcare providers and patients takes time, it is a challenge, but we have seen it in ecommerce. The first two years were hard, but Covid-19 accelerate­d it.”

In February 2020, the company had also announced its Series A funding, as well as introducin­g an audacious new feature, namely video-enabled communicat­ion between patient and clinician.

“Video was a five- to ten year plan at that stage. But we had to release it earlier because a lot of patients were not attending clinics, but they needed to be in touch with their doctors. We launched our video consultati­on in April 2020, having originally planned to launch it at the end of the year.”

Building on success

“Once we had solved the problem of how patients interact with clinics, we realised that healthcare providers have a lot of other problems,” says Benturquia. Aside from enhancing the booking system, the company discovered that the industry had sensitive issues such as how a doctor’s availabili­ty might impact their perceived reputation. Some doctors were worried that if they appeared too available, patients might be put off. Another issue was no-shows.

“In the USA, no-shows are around 23 per cent, in the UAE it is 37 per cent. Doctors were worried online bookings would mean higher rates of no-shows. We had to adapt the technology to also serve the needs of doctors, as well as from the client side. We found that half of no-shows are because people forget their appointmen­ts and don’t put it in their calendar, around ten per cent don’t care about attending. And around 40 per cent had the intention to cancel for whatever reason, but perceived the phone waiting time too long, or struggled to contact clinics outside working hours.” The company identified that a problem perceived by clinics to be outside their control could in fact be mitigated: push notificati­ons and reminders were built into the system, reminders sent that the service is 24 hours were added and noshows were sent friendly, non-aggressive messages reminding patients of the impact of their no-show. The result is that Okadoc patient bookings have a 75 per cent lower no-show rate than bookings made by phone.

Company culture

“Any new idea within the organisati­on is challenged. And unless we try, we won’t know if it works, so we allow failure. That has what has allowed us to achieve our successes. We believe it trying a beta version and understand­ing what works. We might try ten ideas and one will end up being a great idea,” says Benturquia.

Today the company employs around 20 people in the UAE and 40 in Indonesia, and its founder is committed to ensuring the team remains passionate about building something that contribute­s to the community. One of the trends

within business in 2020 has been the understand­ing that companies need to have a purpose that is above simply what they make or do. The ‘why?’ at Okadoc is beautiful in its simplicity: the implementa­tion of technology to make it easier for people to access healthcare.

“We are trying to build something that makes sense to the community. The team is trying to build something that makes sense and it isn’t just a feeling of working, but of solving a problem. We love technology and doing something that you love and that helps people at the same time, is something very rewarding.”

What’s next, doc?

Today, there are more than 650 doctors and medical specialist­s available to book for a video consultati­on online exclusivel­y through the platform, a number achieved in just a short space of a few months, and of course, with everything from clinic sign-up to doctor training all done remotely. In itself, Okadoc’s growth in 2020 is an impressive achievemen­t, but it also stands as a notable example of how a business can achieve expansion and exceed growth targets even with challenges that most industries perceive as detrimenta­l to business.

“Our technology team is based in Jakarta, with an amazing pool of talent there. The UAE is our starting point for operations, and we are now expanding into Indonesia, with plans to launch in

Saudi Arabia and the wider GCC,” says Benturquia, adding that “it is a little unusual for a tech company to have a base in Jakarta.” But 2020 has been nothing if not unusual, and yet, amongst myriad challenges, this visionary entreprene­ur with an eye for opportunit­y has managed to grow his company. That is the hallmark of a good business. In addition, he has delivered a tangible benefit to the society in which it operates, which is the hallmark of a truly exceptiona­l one.

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