While the Egyptian Pharmacists’ Syndicate has called for banning the purchasing and selling of medical drugs online and has stepped up its actions by filing about nine reports to the Public Prosecutor against a number of applications and online platforms not conforming to its resolution, Vezeeta announced on Tuesday the launch of its e-pharmacy platform in the Egyptian market.
In an interview, Ahram Online discussed with the CEO and Founder of Vezeeta, Amir Barsoum, the details of this new service and how the Egyptian market is expected to respond to it amid the current circumstances.
Barsoum affirmed that this action is compatible with Egyptian laws and will be expanded all over the country very soon.
Ahram Online also discussed with Barsoum Vezeeta’s investments in Egypt, the Middle East, and Africa, as he unveiled that the company will inject an extra $25 million in the Egyptian market in 2021.
Ahram Online: How has healthcare tech become a key component of the “new normal” imposed by the pandemic?
Amir Barsoum: In very simple terms, COVID-19 has not changed the landscape, but it has just accelerated the pace of making healthcare tech, as you said, a key component of individuals’ lives through depending on healthcare providers, including remote healthcare services that rely on virtual solutions.
A year ago, the market in Egypt was not receptive to tele-consultation options and there was little support for the idea and very little uptake from the patients’ side as well as the doctors themselves.
COVID-19, however, has educated everybody that you can get high-quality healthcare remotely.
On the other hand, when we have a look on how the healthcare system and hospitals have reacted to the pandemic, we will see that people in the first wave of the virus were eager to go to hospitals to get diagnosed and treated, which was not the case in the second wave, as a large segment of the population avoided going due to overcrowding and the shortage in intensive care units.
In a nutshell, without technology, patients, nurses, and doctors couldn’t be matched easily as we are witnessing in the ongoing second wave, and without COVID-19, nobody would have accepted a change like this to happen. The trajectory of the new normal is going towards utilising technologies in every aspect of life.
AO: How has the pandemic boosted healthcare tech businesses and investments in the Middle East and Africa, including Egypt?
AB: So, COVID-19 has increased the number of users of tech-based healthcare services platforms.
Here, let me say that healthcare tech and fintech, if compared with other sectors that are utilising technology, are the two sectors that require a lot of education and different circumstances that could help them accelerate and grow when starting a new business or investing in one.
COVID-19 has leveraged the base of healthcare tech in areas of choosing the doctors, booking them, booking an appointment in the radiology centre, ordering home visits, purchasing drugs from online pharmacies, and receiving them through home delivery options.
Healthcare tech will be promising for investment channels in the Egyptian market and in the MENA region going forward, especially since the Egyptian market is a huge market that needs this kind of investments and businesses.
I think the Egyptian market will be seeing foreign and domestic investments in this field and it is expected to witness the emergence of mega healthcare providers in the country.
AO: What is the role the private sector can play in supporting and financing this sort of businesses in the region, including Egypt?
AB: The private sector has a major role to play in changing the landscape of the industry. The public sector has the role of setting regulations, but the private sector is responsible for introducing innovation.
However, if the innovation does not cater to the ecosystem’s needs, it will not succeed. I mean that private sector providers need to offer affordable healthcare services for clients first.
This is what Vezeeta did, which resulted in a significant increase in providers, including doctors and hospitals, who provide their services through our platform and even a number of military hospitals in Egypt have become among Vezeeta’s providers.
AO: Since you mentioned the public sector, is there any kind of coordination between Vezeeta and the government?
AB: Of course. we are working very closely with the Ministry of Health, especially amid the pandemic. We have implemented three major initiatives with the ministry that have focused on introducing free medical consultations and providing automation options for doctors on the frontlines.
Moreover, we are currently in talks with a number of public sector bodies that will be announced soon.
The public sectors and our ultimate objective is allowing patients to access healthcare in a better format and to improve the general experience.
What is phenomenal in Egypt today is that all parties are actually looking for better healthcare services to be extended to Egyptian patients.
Really, I have never seen the government thinking this way before or being adamant about providing such an experience to citizens, which makes us enthusiastic to cooperate with it.
AO: What about Vezeeta’s business in Egypt and how it has grown in the domestic market amid the pandemic?
AB: Vezeeta is an Egyptian company, indeed. Egypt is a phenomenal place filled with talents and it’s a ripe market that has lot of innovation that can be used locally or exported.
We are committed to invest more in the Egyptian market, as we plan to invest an extra $25 million throughout 2021 on tech investments, launching new services, and upscaling fragmentations in the industry.
The Egyptian market is definitely attractive despite the ongoing harsh conditions. Under the great leadership of Egypt today, we are seeing phenomenal economic improvement and conditions that are contributing to making the market more attractive for investments and are encouraging us to expand the online pharmaceutical industry.
AO: What about your current investments in Egypt and how they have been affected by the pandemic?
AB: To date, we have invested about $35 million, with 100 engineers in the Egypt office.
We are actually doubling our investments every year, and in 2020 we tripled our business inside the Egyptian market and outside it.
AO: Tell us more about the new AI-led pharmacy service that Vezeeta has launched recently.
AB: On 2 February, we launched our ePharmacy solution (Vezeeta Pharmacy) that enables its users to order their prescription medications through the mobile app.
Through the mobile app, users can upload their e-prescriptions, add their insurance preference, choose cash or cashless payment options before checking out, and schedule same-day home deliveries in Cairo and Giza.
Patients can also combine their pharmacy experience with doctors’ teleconsultations, as well as 24/7 access to licensed pharmacists and customer care providers.
We aim to change the traditional pharmacy experience in the Egyptian market. We are also planning to reach other cities around the country very soon.
AO: Do you think that the Egyptian market will respond positively to the idea of purchasing drugs from an online platform over a traditional pharmacy?
AB: Egyptian purchasing behaviour during the pandemic proves that an online pharmacy will be accepted.
I think our industry is facing three major challenges, including a lack of data — as patients do not have medical records and doctors do not save them either — the consistency of the medical delivery service, and the dependency on assistants more than pharmacists in traditional pharmacies.
All these challenges that have contributed drastically in the deterioration of the healthcare sector in Egypt can be tamed by online pharmacies.
AO: And yet, the Egyptian Pharmacists’ Syndicate has called for the ban of selling pharmaceuticals and drugs through online resources, how did you deal with that?
AB: We are 100 percent committed to Egyptian law. We do not send any drugs that have not come out of a licensed pharmacy in the market. We never rely on distribution centres or warehouses.
We are not competing with pharmacists at all, but we are a healthcare tech provider company that is working on automating the whole industry.
Vezeeta is not breaching the law by taking this action, and laws in Egypt should actually support this kind of system and push forward prescriptions that improve the quality of the healthcare service in the market and, in return, criminalise hand-written prescriptions as is the case in Europe and the US, where hand-writing prescriptions is penalised.
E-prescriptions mean less mistakes, covering data, and keeping it. It has become a new normal in the healthcare scene as well.
AO: Does this mean that there was some sort of coordination with the Egyptian government and the Pharmacists’ Syndicate regarding providing an online pharmacy service in the local market?
AB: We are pretty close to the ministry of health and had started talks with it in this regard. But we have to attain some success before introducing a complete vision of an e-pharmacy system to the government to get its support.