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Charlie Barlow: Advocating Telemedicine on a Global Scale

Charlie Barlow: Advocating Telemedicine on a Global Scale
Charlie Barlow | CEO | Founder | Health at Hand

The telemedicine industry—currently at its peak—is expanding, far beyond its purpose of facilitating interactions between physicians and patients, into new ways of delivering health care and conventional medicine.

In recognition of this trend, UAE based Health at Hand, a trendsetter in doctor consultant app is shattering the barriers of telemedicine and giving a new meaning to the term virtual health.

In this exclusive interview with Insights Care, CEO and Founder of Health at Hand, Charlie Barlow sheds light on the company’s journey and how it is disrupting the healthcare industry.

Tell us about your personal journey from the very start. What have been the moments that you look back to?

The first 12 years of my career were in the finance sector. I was working for some of the world’s most reputable banks, in London, Beijing, Hong Kong, and Dubai. While I thoroughly enjoyed my career and was fortunate enough to work with extremely talented teams and individuals, I felt somewhat unfulfilled. I always wanted to challenge myself personally in starting my own business and building my own corporate culture, but I also had a huge desire to focus on something impactful. Something extremely difficult to do or achieve as a small cog in the global finance sector. This led me to the start of my entrepreneurial journey.

I began by researching in considerable detail both the education and healthcare sectors and noticed that access to quality healthcare and education is not delivered equally across society, with access heavily biased to those already born into privilege. I set my sights on making an impact in the primary healthcare space, using technology to create a more even playing field where access to quality, primary healthcare is not a privilege for the few, but a basic human right. From here, Health at Hand was born.

If you had to describe a day in your life, what would it be like? How would you describe yourself in one word?

In one word, I would describe myself as IMPATIENT! The amazing thing about running your own business is that no one day is the same. I normally start the day pretty early with a beach run in Dubai at 5.30 am, followed by a strong coffee and the morning papers – my team knows not to approach me until I have had my morning caffeine hit!

However, I have used my impatience to push our business to grow and as a business, we have such ambition for changing the landscape. We have a central focus on democratizing healthcare and putting the power back into the patient’s hands, as explained brilliantly in Eric Topol’s book ‘The Patient Will See You Now’, which I encourage everyone to read.

Having done B. Sc. Honors in Business, Economics, and Politics, what inspired you to start a telehealth company and what keeps you going? Who would you say is your motivation?

As an entrepreneur, I am fortunate to be surrounded by some brilliant colleagues, but in the early days, I was both the CEO and the office manager. Today I normally spend a few hours in the morning with our various teams, looking at the latest technology features we are to build with our team of engineers, strategizing with our marketing team as to how we can use thought leadership and education to further drive consumer behavior change, analyzing our latest metrics and KPIs, and speaking to our patients to understand their experience, both good and bad, as we look to continually improve our offering.

I have always been keen to start my own business and have been lucky enough to invest some of my own personal money into early-stage technology businesses. I am a mentor for Google in the MENA region and really enjoy working with talented entrepreneurs, knowing how challenging it is to move from concept to reality with a start-up. My real motivation is to build something that has a positive and meaningful impact on society and with Health at Hand we have a real chance to do this. I often think that running your own business is like doing a Masters every week and the challenge keeps me incredibly motivated.

Kindly tell us in detail about the company, your ingenious app, its features and the mission and vision of Health at Hand.

Our mobile apps allow the user to connect to connect to a doctor for a live video consultation, during which the doctor can diagnose, and where necessary offer a sick leave certificate, lab tests, prescription medication, and integrated medicine delivery. Our average wait time to see a doctor this year is 59 seconds, and in 89% of all our video calls, there is no need to have a face-to-face follow up. While we are working across all communities, we have a real focus on the ‘underserved’ populations who find primary healthcare access a challenge. We are working with a number of blue-collar populations in labor camps across the UAE.

Health at Hand’s mission is to ensure quality, primary healthcare is accessible to ALL, and not just a privilege for the few. In order to make this affordable for the consumer, we partner with the payers (health insurers) who offer Health at Hand as a free additional benefit across their membership base. The advantage of the payers is our ability to reduce their costs by limiting the number of unnecessary face-to-face doctor visits and thereby reducing the abuse associated with overprescribing of drugs.

What has been the journey of Health at Hand so far? As its founder and CEO, what has been your contribution to the growth of the company and the industry as a whole?

Attempting to disrupt a heavily regulated sector such as healthcare is extremely challenging, but incredibly rewarding. Over the 3 years of Health at Hand’s existence, we have successfully created a market for telehealth in the GCC through the determined lobbying of governments and healthcare regulators, and a considerable amount of thought-leadership and education. We lead with ‘quality’ across everything we do, and clinical care is a priority. By matching clinical quality with convenience for patients and cost-containment for payers and governments, we are breaking down barriers and delivering on our mission. There is lots of hard work ahead but the healthcare regulators in the GCC have been incredibly supportive and as a result, we’re beginning to make a strong impact across the region.

Among contemporaries, how has Health at Hand ensured to stay on the top through all these years? What sets it apart?

Without being complacent, there are currently no comparable businesses in the region that can match our technology’s capabilities, our overall product offering, or our ability to deliver a telehealth solution to the payers in the region. This does not mean we don’t keep a close eye on international telehealth companies, and the reality is, there is enough room in the market for there to be multiple quality players.

As a company, we emphasize on clinical quality and are proud to be independent. Independence is key as our vested interest is to treat people successfully through video where it is safe to do so – as opposed to using telehealth to fill a specific clinic’s waiting room or hospital beds – of which we have neither.

We also focus on, what we call ‘continuous improvement’, and we work hard to ensure that we maintain our sustainable competitive advantage. The reality is, we embrace quality competition, particularly when it comes to educating the consumer. Being a first-mover can often be slower and more expensive.

Running a successful health tech company is no easy task. What are the challenges you faced on your way to being one of the best? What has been your strategy to overcome all these challenges?

On a weekly basis, we have a number of ‘roll your sleeves up’ moments and it has required considerable patience, tenacity and hard work to get where we are. We have worked closely with governments and regulators to bring about change in the industry and recognize that this can take time. It’s not easy to change course at the speed we would all like and we have been grateful for the willingness of the regulators, in particular, to work closely with us. If I have done one thing well, it is to hire brilliant people. We really do have a fantastic team that I wouldn’t swap for any other in the sector.

How is telehealth helping us move towards better patient management solutions and remote patient handling?

There is absolutely no doubt that telehealth is the future of primary healthcare and an absolute necessity in managing costs and convenience in healthcare. With huge population growth, the aggressive roll-out of mandatory healthcare reform across the region, and a steep increase in diseases of affluence (e.g. obesity and diabetes), technology is the only way to deliver a sustainable healthcare sector.

What, according to you, are the latest developments disrupting the healthcare industry? What is the role of telehealth in advancing the industry further?

The use cases of telehealth are vast, and certainly not limited to a primary healthcare doctor to patient consultation via video. We are huge advocates of predictive and preventative medicine that can be enabled through the likes of AI and home monitoring. There is a danger that technology advances too quickly for the consumer and we conduct regular workshops on ‘consumer behavior change’ to determine the right time to launch new features across our technology. But for years there has been too much focus (and money) spent on bricks and mortar healthcare. The landscape is slowly changing.

Kindly tell us your take on the market scenario for a telehealth company in UAE. Where do you think it is heading?

Telehealth is an absolute necessity for the UAE and wider region as a cost-containment solution for governments and payers, and to provide convenience to the consumer. Medical insurance inflation rates are dangerously high and telehealth is at an inflection point. However, we are very aware that it is a heavily regulated sector, as it should be, and the public and private sectors need to work together to ensure the delivery of telehealth is done in the right manner, at the right speed.

Being a prominent leader yourself, what would you advise the upcoming leaders or budding entrepreneurs in the healthcare segment?

Be bold, be brave, and never give up! Ambition is the catalyst to all great invention.

What are your future plans for the company? Where do you see it in the years to come?

We’re ambitious and we will grow both horizontally and vertically as a business. By horizontally, I mean across multiple geographies, and we already have a clear path to launch into a number of new countries in the next few months including India by the end of 2019. By vertical growth, I mean expanding our consumer proposition to move into the likes of at-home monitoring, AI-led symptom checking and incorporating a number of additional wellness features. Without giving too much away, 2020 is an exciting year for Health at Hand.



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