The COVID-19 pandemic is placing heavy pressure on healthcare services around the globe, whether they are provided through public hospitals or private entities.
In the MENA region, a number of reports and analysts have said that health services are among the sectors that are actually benefiting from the current situation, and that they will witness a boom over the short and medium terms.
A recent report issued by Fitch Solutions, for instance, predicted the region’s healthcare market to grow to $243.6 billion by 2023, up from $185.5 billion in 2019 with an 11.7 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR).
For Egypt, in particular, the report indicated that the country’s total healthcare spending will post a local currency CAGR of 9.7 percent through to 2023 (8.4 percent in US dollar) to reach $12.6 billion.
Similar growth rates are forecast over the following five years, working out at CAGR (a Y-o-Y ) of 9.6 percent in local currency (7.4 percent in US dollar), with the market forecast to be valued at $17.2 billion in 2028, according to the report.
Meanwhile, health spending per capita is forecast to reach $117 by 2023 and $147 by 2028, up from $86 in 2018.
Regarding healthcare services that are provided through the private sector, Fitch indicated a high proportion of private healthcare spending, as Egypt remains one of the most interesting North African markets with a rapid population growth.
Additionally, according to the report, the start of the rollout of the universal health insurance system, which began in mid-2019 and is expected to be in place by 2032, provides a solid longer-term growth potential.
Another report issued by Fitch pointed out that Egypt’s pharmaceutical and healthcare market has been one of the most attractive in the MENA region, given that the government's efforts to improve the sector will attract further foreign investments in the coming period, while the economic reforms, including the new health insurance law, the establishment of the Egyptian Drug Authority (EDA), and the new investment law, will raise demand for healthcare services and medicines, enhance the business environment, and encourage foreign investments.
Fitch’s figures reflect how the healthcare market in MENA in general and in Egypt in particular is expected to witness a boom amid the current challenges, making use of other potentials that will drive it to a notable growth.
Furthermore, according to Oxford Business Group’s recent report, though the Egyptian healthcare system is marked by a pluralistic mix of public facilities, it has been strained by rapid population growth and relatively low levels of funding. Thus, most Egyptians opt for private facilities, fuelling high levels of out-of-pocket expenditure and increasing the desire for private insurance.
In response, the government has initiated several reforms aimed at improving quality and access to healthcare services for its population. Demand for medical equipment, pharmaceuticals and healthcare facilities are likely to follow, offering continued private sector growth and opportunity.
Yet, Egypt’s healthcare business is projected soon to face challenges due to the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, given the basic nature of healthcare services, according to a report by the Russian Renaissance Capital Bank.
However, according to the report, the long-term vision for the country’s healthcare sector remains good, and the drop in stock prices since the beginning of the year provides an attractive investment opportunity, while the pharmaceutical sector will be the least affected during the pandemic.
With additional support from accumulated demand, the company expected that the second quarter of 2020 will be the weakest quarter in terms of patient influx, while there will be an added decrease of 25 to 35 percent for hospitals and laboratory services, with gradual recovery in the third quarter before returning to pre-pandemic levels in the fourth quarter.
New innovations in healthcare services
The COVID-19 outbreak has also pushed innovation to play a further role, as a number of Egyptian start-ups have decided to adopt new ideas to meet the market needs, especially with the lockdown measures, and to survive amid the harsh impacts of the pandemic on all kinds of businesses.
One of these initiatives is One4All, which is a partnership between private sector leaders and domestic healthcare startups that aims to help provide several healthcare services to Egypt’s population free of charge, in an effort to lessen the strain on hospitals.
The initiative provides on-demand nursing services, free online counselling, including an algorithm-powered chatbot that assesses symptoms to determine the likelihood of them having COVID-19 and need testing, as well as triage sessions.
It also provides free counselling sessions to Egyptians. The 30-minute online sessions take place through a video call and aim to address the various impacts that the global pandemic is having on Egyptians’ mental health.
All of these tools are provided in both English and Arabic and are meant to be accessible to any Egyptian with access to the internet.
Youspital is an online platform providing access to several healthcare services including COVID-19 home testing, which includes two rapid preliminary tests, and which aims to ensure that underserved communities can afford to be tested for the virus.
The company joined the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s (EBRD) Star Venture in Egypt in 2020.
In an attempt to meet the sudden high demand for tests amid the pandemic, Youspital offered COVID-19 rapid test kits through one of their service providers and launched their online platform this month.
Youspital offers discounts of 30 percent for coronavirus testing and 25 to 70 percent for other blood tests, helping many clients get tested for much less than they would normally pay.
The online platform, run by a team of seven people, is currently among the first private ventures in Egypt to offer bookings for different medical tests all over the country, using online payment methods.
Moreover, Youspital offers a free hotline for medical consultations regarding the virus, which helps to avoid unnecessary home visits or fees for laboratory tests and minimises the risk of the virus spread.
The healthcare sector is at the epicentre of this crisis. And, in the process of navigating these untested waters, the healthcare ecosystem as a whole has been pushed to rise to the occasion, according to the CEO and co-founder of UAE-based Vezeeta Amir Barsoum.
Vezeeta is the leading digital healthcare booking platform operating in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Levant and the UAE, and practice management software in MENA that provides healthcare services including medical consultations and booking doctors.
Speaking to Ahram Online, Barsoum said that digital solutions like telemedicine are quickly shifting from a previously slow adoption path to a pace of uptake. Health-tech companies that have primarily been operating at the fringes of the system are stepping up their game to fill existing gaps and reduce the burden on frontline workers and healthcare systems.
“Every day we are seeing new players pop up in the region or old players shifting gears to introduce remote monitoring and tele-health solutions along with chatbots, secure messaging and even video visits, all to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Telehealth platforms are being used for screening and triage to ensure safety for millions at risk,” Barsoum illustrated.
Barsoum said that since the COVID-19 outbreak in March, Vezeeta launched tele-health in Egypt, Saudi, Jordan, Kenya, and soon Nigeria, generating more than 30,000 calls in the span of a month (this product was initially pipelined for June 2020).
For healthcare providers, responding to the dramatically heightened demand for medical care and resources is a massive challenge. While telehealth solutions have proven to be key in lessening the overwhelming burden faced by healthcare workers and protecting them from exposure on the frontlines, the adoption of remote healthcare solutions such as Telemedicine has been slow in this part of the world as there was never an urgency to access healthcare remotely, until now, Barsoum said.
As users try to navigate their way through the new way of life, their increasing reliance on their smartphone to access healthcare will require building trust and behavioural change. Vezeeta has seen healthcare behavioural changes first-hand with its telehealth in Egypt, where within the first two weeks the number of telehealth calls reached close to 700 to 1,000 a day since its launch.
Before the pandemic, physical consultations through Vezeeta’s platform would have numbered 300,000 to 320,000 a month. With telehealth, it now stands at 230,000 to 249,000 transactions a month, proving that a value-added service has the potential to change generational habits.
Barsoum added that Egypt’s greatest income-generating sectors have definitely taken a massive hit in the past few months. The travel and tourism industry, for instance, which generates annual revenues exceeding $12 billion, is now enduring massive losses because of the COVID-19 pandemic, projecting losses to reach $1 billion a month. So, in light of this shift, healthcare has certainly emerged as the cushion that can soften the blow of such an economic downturn.
“We have seen first-hand the convenience, efficiency, and value that digital healthcare brings to providers and patients alike, which has resulted in a 68 percent rise in telehealth calls and inquiries in Egypt within the span of a month since its launch, at a time when the global healthcare industry has seen an estimated 30 to 50 percent decline in transactions and industry size during lockdown,” Barsoum pointed out.
For instance, Vezeeta’s telehealth solution has immensely benefited fragmented doctors and healthcare entities, giving them the chance to work remotely from any convenient location and reach out to a wider patient-base across their country, cutting down on waiting time and no-shows. This a lucrative tool for all modern healthcare entities, and a way for patients to cut travel time and costs. The key here is to empower caregivers with telehealth and telemedicine to create a clinic-like healthcare journey for patients from the safety of their homes, according to Barsoum.
Vezeeta was launched in 2012, and since then has continually evolved its product portfolio to tap into cutting-edge technology that allows users to easily search, review, book and rate their medical appointments and tele-consultations with top-rated doctors in their cities, schedule medication delivery at their convenience and even book diagnostic services. Currently serving more than 4 million patients across six countries, with over 25,000 doctors subscribed to the platform, Vezeeta is growing at an 8X annual growth rate within the MENA region, said Barsoum.
Regarding how Vezeeta has made use of the partial lockdown and social distancing measures in Egypt, Barsoum clarified that Vezeeta’s telehealth was already in the making and was due to launch in June, but the unprecedented healthcare crisis accelerated the company’s product development and launch.
“We also fast-tracked the launch of our business in Kenya and Nigeria by two months, because it seemed like the right time to facilitate healthcare services to millions who currently can’t leave their homes to get medical help without risking exposure,” he added.