Doctors go digital

Online medical consultations launch in lebanon

Online medical consultation platforms Sohati and eTobb are bent on digitalizing the process of diagnosis. In the past year both companies have launched interfaces that allow users to ask medical questions and get a doctor’s response within 24 to 48 hours, anonymously, and for free. 

The digitalization of health has clear benefits. It is making reliable health information more accessible in Lebanon and the wider Middle East — where not everyone has adequate access to healthcare or the means to procure a doctor’s services. It is also raising awareness of taboo topics that are sometimes considered too personal for the doctor’s offices while enabling tech-savvy doctors to attract new clientele.

Zena Sfeir and Elsa Aoun, two of the co-founders of Sohati, recently quit their jobs at pharmaceutical and consulting companies to work full-time on the project. Together with Naji Gehchan and Wassim Kari, they launched Sohati in April, an online platform bringing doctor-verified information to the internet. This is Aoun and Kari’s second venture into digital marketing after founding Ounousa.com, a popular online women’s portal. For the four of them, the need for reliable health information online was apparent.  “You can go on the internet and find tons of medical forums, where you have lots of information, but you’re not sure that this information is really credible,” explains Sfeir. “What we decided is to have something really credible, that’s validated by doctors, [to ensure] we have the right information.” Sohati points to various medical articles written by doctors, in addition to Q and A’s and monthly forums — available through the website — in which the general public can pose health-related questions to Sohati’s contributing experts.

Trusted medical knowledge

Co-founders of eTobb Paul Saber and Sara Helou also cited inaccurate health information online as a reason for starting their company in January with third co-founder Jad Joubran. “What we want to do is digitalize health in the region, and the problem is that doctors are not very digital when it comes to their profession,” says Saber, “We’re trying to capture the patient life cycle…helping them every step of the way,” he continues. “We launched eTobb to give specific answers to personal cases, and who better to answer you than a doctor?” Helou echoes the sentiment, “This is one of the main objectives: to empower people with medical knowledge. Not any medical knowledge — trusted medical knowledge.” ETobb, like Sohati, allows users to ask medical questions in Q and A forums which are then answered by doctors. The platform also lets users browse through doctors’ full professional profiles.

The two initiatives have sparked the interest of users, doctors, and investors alike. Sohati’s Arabic-language platform generated 150,000 unique visitors in the month of August alone, and they currently have over 10,000 users active on the site. ETobb did not wish to disclose their visitor numbers, but claim 20,000 registered users on their English-language platform.  Sohati’s user base mostly comes from the region, with 30 percent coming from Saudi Arabia and 18 percent from the UAE. Only 6-7 percent came from Lebanon. ETobb’s user base by contrast is primarily Lebanese.

Contributing doctors offer their expertise for free. Of the around 13,000 registered doctors in Lebanon Sohati draws from a pool of 30. ETobb boasts over 500, explaining that although doctors essentially work for the site pro bono they benefit from the online exposure. “Doctors are not paid, but what they get is a free profile and a chance to engage with the community, to answer questions, so people know them better,” explains Saber. “Doctors can’t advertise themselves in Lebanon ­— it’s illegal. So this is one way to spread their reputation to get people to know them better,” adds Helou.

The projects have attracted the eyes of investors. Sohati received angel funding from a Lebanese investor who did not wish to disclose the size of her investment in print. ETobb received $76,500 in cash and in-kind investment from startup accelerator Seeqnce. The interest of investors for these budding companies is perhaps a good indication that there is a market for electronic health, as both companies are working on ways to monetarize their ideas.

Business Models

Sohati is leaning towards advertisement and sponsorship to monetize their platform. On the ad side, selling banner space on the website on a cost per click or cost per impression basis would generate some revenue. As for sponsorship, Sohati are looking for partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, universities, insurance companies, and hospitals. Currently the group is in negotiations with a major Lebanese hospital to feature a new machine on the site. 

Sohati is also eyeing the e-commerce market with plans afoot to carry out a pilot test in a particular country before launching regionally. “It’s going to be more over-the-counter products: pharmaceutical supplements, vitamins, stuff where you don’t need a prescription from a doctor and can buy it online. Especially for products that we don’t have in the region,” says Sfeir. Although without revenue to date, Sohati are hoping that come December the revenue stream will start to flow.

ETobb has already made $30,000 from sponsorships by charging a flat rate for people to place logos on their site. They are also looking for ways to charge users for certain services on their website. For example, by setting up an online booking option in the next couple of months that would enable doctors to manage their appointments through eTobb while charging them a monthly fee — equivalent to the price of a consultation. “Sometimes you do still need to go see a doctor for a physical consultation, so we have the online bookings for that,” says Saber.

ETobb is also geared to launch a premium version of their Q and A platform, which would be private and would give users the option to add features in order to customize their interactions with the doctors. “In the premium private sessions you can share your medical information with the doctor,” says Helou. “We’ll be allowing patients to upload their medical files on eTobb.” Users can also opt for a video chat with doctors although prior to launch the company is finalizing security measures so that patients’ privacy is not compromised.

Taking on the taboos

Anonymous online consultations have helped to create a platform for people to seek professional advice on often touchy personal health issues without the potential embarassment of a face-to-face meeting with a general practitioner. “The most popular are the taboo subjects, the ones where people are intimidated when they want to ask a doctor face-to-face, especially in the Arab world,” says  eTobb’s Saber. “There is not a lot of awareness in our society because of taboos so now when people go on eTobb and read the questions and answers they are like ‘oh, I didn’t know this could happen, I didn’t know this was true,’” says Helou.

Sohati’s most popular live chat sessions with doctors have been hosted by gynecologists. “You cannot imagine the number of questions we got, even after we closed the session we had it on the inbox of Facebook with lots of questions,” says Sfeir. Much of the interest is coming from Saudi Arabia. “If it’s not the woman, it’s the husband,” she says. 

As far as online health goes, it is only the beginning. ETobb will be launching a cellphone app with the same features as their website, as well as an Arabic language version of the site. Sohati plans to launch a related platform in January and re-vamp the group’s website to increase its user-friendliness. “We’re working on it so hopefully we will have it soon,” says Sfeir.

The market for online health in Lebanon is still uncharted territory. “The health industry, especially in this region, has so much potential,” says Helou. “In the [United] States, there are so many health apps and so many health websites and everything is still growing and growing and multiplying and there are always new ideas. I think the same can be applied to the region … We still have a long way to go and a lot of things to do. What we’ve listed here are the main features — this is just the beginning. There is so much to do.”

Livia Murray

Livia covers business, finance and economic policy for Executive.

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