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Revolutionising patient booking in the Gulf

Startup in the Gulf region is applying digital technology to solve the inefficiencies in medical appointment booking processes

When Dubai-based Fodhil Benturquia fell ill for a short while in 2017, he saw first-hand how difficult it was to book a doctor in the emirate – so he decided to create his own venture to solve the problem of booking an appointment.

To this end, he set up and became CEO of Okadoc.com, the UAE’s first online doctor booking portal.

Launched in April 2018, the Okadoc app has a 24-hour medical calendar system that helps patients search and select doctors by specialty, location, language and insurance coverage. They can instantly book appointments based on availability.

Benturquia said Okadoc can reduce health appointment “no shows” by 75%, by helping patients to remember doctors’ appointments and making it easier to reschedule or cancel. “Missed appointments are shown to lower efficiencies in the healthcare system, preventing patients from getting timely access to care and wasting valuable clinical resources including physicians’ time,” he said.

Less than a year since the tech veteran launched the platform, Okadoc is averaging around 90,000 unique visits per month from users booking appointments and viewing doctor profiles. More than 100 clinics and 1,000 doctors in the UAE have partnered with the portal, including some of the largest healthcare providers in the UAE, such as Zulekha Hospitals and NMC centres.

As former CEO of the $1bn UAE-headquartered e-commerce site Noon.com, Benturquia is well versed in what it takes to build a region-wide user platform. “We want to make Okadoc.com the biggest and best health startup in the GCC, so we are open to partnering with others if it helps with our expansion and to develop better technology,” he said.

“There are some companies trying to solve everything at once, such as online pharma delivery and AI doctors, but we want to focus solely on solving the booking issue first. We want to be the best in the world at booking.”

Read more about healthcare IT in the Middle East

Given the surge in the growth of the Gulf’s healthcare market, the launch of Okadoc is timely. A steadily rising population and increasing treatment costs have driven increased healthcare expenditure in the GCC.

Combined statistics from the World Health Organisation, World Bank, Alpen Capital and others see the GCC healthcare market growing 12.1% between 2015 and 2020, from $40.3bn to $71.3bn.

Due to its large population base, Saudi Arabia is by far the largest contributor to the region’s healthcare spending, accounting for about 48% of the market total. The UAE is second, at 26%, and the two countries collectively account for nearly three-quarters of the region’s spending on healthcare.

Benturquia, who was also a founding member of the regional e-commerce site MarkaVIP and former general manager of Souq.com’s Saudi operations, said he was driven to start up Okadoc when he noticed the success of similar models in the US and globally.

While such apps have between 5% to 15% market penetration in their respective markets, he’s targeting market penetration of at least 30% in the UAE by 2022, and plans to launch Ocadoc in Saudi Arabia this year.

Big challenges

Benturquia said the challenges inherent in launching a regional health app have been immense, and recommended generating a clear vision of the app-building journey and sharing it with all stakeholders at the earliest possible stage for success.

It’s critical to consider the flexibility, modularity and availability of the platform during the first app development stages. “It’s like building the tallest building on earth; if you want to build 100 floors, you have to build the foundations carefully. You have to have a vision of what you want in five or 10 years’ time,” he said.

“Getting the architecture right at the beginning is very important,” said Benturquia. “It can be very time consuming and costly if you make changes later on the fly. You need to build the system so it’s able to cope with changes and added features.”

No-legacy coding languages

It’s important to use the right, no-legacy coding languages. Okadoc uses Golang as its primary backend coding language and serves its frontend application with ReactJS.

“We are happy to build and code every single line of code to make a better healthcare experience for our customer,” said Benturquia.

The Middle East is currently experiencing a dearth of local coding talent, something the Dubai government is attempting to address with its recent One Million Coders coding training programme. In the meantime, he is relying on talent in Jakarta, Indonesia. “The regional coding talent pool must also be factored into the development plan,” he said.

It took his team five months to come with a minimum viable product (MVP), which Okadoc then shared with test users and pilot clinics to generate information and feedback.

“The nature of our site meant we had scalability and searchability challenges,” he said. “The challenge was being able to connect to different clinic management systems, and we made this possible through using global healthcare tech protocol because everyone is going towards that. We made sure we complied with this from the very beginning.”

Benturquia said the company has tried to keep things simple when it comes to its development. “We are not into complicated technology; we don’t want to develop fancy technology that no one is going to use. Okadoc wants to be user-centric and data-centric. We know that simply understanding what users are looking for and giving it to them can produce great results.

“We are using simple technology that already exists to solve a big problem: booking a doctor quickly,” he said.

Read more on Information technology (IT) in the Middle East

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