Nearly all of my project meetings here in Qatar have been at hospitals. In Sweden, most of my meetings were with independent medical device companies of all sizes. I’ve missed getting that innovative, gadget-focused opinion. So, I was thrilled when I found a medical start-up here in Qatar, where there are hardly any start-ups at all! (I read about it in the ‘news’ section of the Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar webpage). Last week, I met with Haris, the co-founder of Meddy, a website that helps people find the best doctors in Qatar. It allows them to search by location, specialty, and rating; for example, you could use Meddy to find the best dentist close to the Al-Hilal neighborhood. Each doctor on Meddy (only doctors who agreed to be on the site are there) has a starred rating and a list of real patient comments – a bit like Yelp for doctors.
First, I asked Haris what it was like to have a start-up in Doha. Ever since the QSTP talk I attended, I’ve been aware that while the government is excited by start-ups, there aren’t many here in Doha. Meddy is housed in QBIC, the Qatar Business Incubation Center, a new start-up incubator. Similar to QSTP and Education City, QBIC was created and funded by government agencies (Qatar is still far from from having venture capital investment and private accelerators).
I learned that it’s difficult to do start-ups in Doha because of the regulations here. There’s a minimum amount of capital that a company needs to get started. However, it’s the requirement that at least 51% of the company is Qatari-owned that turns people away. As the Qataris are ~13% of the population, that’s not easy, though I completely understand the desire of the Qatari government to include the local population in innovation. Luckily, Haris co-founded Meddy with his classmate, who is Qatari. However, since the local Qatari population already has a lot of money (mostly due to oil), it’s possible that many Qataris wouldn’t want to be so heavily invested in a small, risky start-up. With so much money in oil and real estate, especially without the need to work for it, there is very little drive for Qataris to come up with start-up ideas. This came up at the QSTP chat, too, where they discussed the lack of a risk-taking culture.
What I found interesting is that the creators of Meddy never intended it to be a start-up, or at least didn’t go into it with such innovation in mind – perhaps because of the culture here. Meddy was the result of a senior project for a start-up class at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar. A member of the press came to the project presentations and wrote something about Meddy, leading to the idea “blowing up” as many people learned about Meddy and became interested.
It doesn’t surprise me that this start-up is the result of a class at an American university, especially Carnegie Mellon. However, a class about start-ups seems like it could easily fall into the trap of creating a solution where there’s no need. I’m thinking of the CMTH fellowship program in Sweden, during which participants had to identify many hospital and medical needs long before even thinking the word “start-up.” Still, the Meddy co-founders did their work to find a real need. Their initial idea for the class was essentially “LinkedIn for doctors” so that doctors could network with each other. However, after telling doctors about the idea, they realized that doctors didn’t have need for a personalized networking platform nor the time or energy to maintain a profile. Instead, the Meddy group found that they were discussing where to find good doctors in Qatar. They realized that the problem was on the patient end; people are always looking for good doctors and trying to avoid bad ones.
They validated that this was a real need by talking to many friends, family members, and professors. When someone in Doha needs a doctor, dentist, dermatologist, or some other specialized doctor, they ask their friends and family for specific recommendations. However, since many of the doctors are expats that are only here for, say, five years, the list of “good doctors in Doha” is always changing and thus hard to keep track of. Similarly, patients come and go, so you might ask around about a good sports medicine doctor only to find out that none of your friends have been to one since they arrived in Doha. Basically, there’s no constant base of people here, so when people seek doctor recommendations from their social circles, those social circles are always changing. Favorite doctors come and go. Therefore, migrating all of this information to a website – with lists of Doha doctors rated by real patients – creates a constant base that can be accessed by anyone at any time.
In the United States, you might be referred to a specialized doctor by your general practitioner or family doctor; in Qatar, it’s not as common to have such a doctor, especially for expats that are only here for a few years. Also, in New York City at least, you could find a doctor via independent rating agencies that publish lists such as “The 10 Best Doctors of 2016,” “The 10 Best Dentists of 2016,” and so on, every year. That’s not the case here in Doha.
Haris asked me if I had heard about Zocdoc and was surprised when I said no. As it turns out, it’s a doctor-finding service very similar to Meddy that was founded in New York City in 2007 and is still based there (hey, maybe I’ll send them my resume!). Zocdoc also has iOS and Android apps, whereas Meddy is entirely web-based (for now). Harris said that Zocdoc is one of many doctor-finding services throughout the United States. If he had tried to launch Meddy there, he said, he would have been crushed almost instantly by the competition. In Qatar, however, Meddy is one-of-a-kind and thrives.
As to whether or not Meddy can make people healthier in Qatar, its target is people who are already looking for a doctor. While Meddy makes it easier to find doctors, people still have to self-motivate to use the service. It also targets people who can afford to shop around without considering the price of treatment – rich Qataris and expats here on salaries with private insurance benefits. Meddy is good for people on private insurance because it connects patients to doctors at private clinics. If you don’t want to make a choice, or if you can’t afford a private doctor, you can show up to the general hospital owned by the governmental Hamad Medical Corporation, where you would be assigned to the next-available doctor in the necessary field.
Once the co-founders of Meddy had their idea, they started building it as their senior project for their start-up class. They had to encourage doctors to join the site, some of whom were hesitant at first. However, they currently have a 100% retention rate – no doctors have removed their profiles. While building the site, they did usability testing to make sure it was user-friendly. They also asked people to start adding reviews. When they presented it as their senior project, as I mentioned, it became their jobs. I asked if any of the patients had privacy concerns about leaving reviews. Haris said that there’s a stereotype that patients are very privacy-focused (all over the world, but especially in Qatar), but that it’s not true. In fact, Meddy had to edit down some posts because patients shared too many personal details when reviewing their doctors.
I was impressed with Meddy, but Haris was very modest about it. “We’re just solving a basic need,” he said, emphasizing that Meddy is mainly an aggregator of opinions. The site gets 50,000 visits per month, however, and an Arabic version was recently released, increasing the site’s popularity. Haris thinks that Arabic versions of health services and startups in general could influence the locals to be healthier and engage with startups – it’s important to reach them in their native language. For example, an “Arabic WebMD” would be useful here. Meddy predicts even more growth in the future since employers of expats continue to offer the benefit of private insurance to new employees in Doha, giving them the freedom to choose any doctor they want. This is especially important considering the wait times at Hamad Medical Corporation; the city’s main healthcare provider is getting increasingly crowded.
Check out Meddy’s website at: http://www.meddy.co/.