Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Medical memos remind millions

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A student job has turned into a business that links doctors and patients.

New Zealand's healthcare system is ahead of the pack in its use of mobile technology, says Ahmad Jubbawey. Photo / Richard Robinson
New Zealand's healthcare system is ahead of the pack in its use of mobile technology, says Ahmad Jubbawey. Photo / Richard Robinson

When repeated missed appointments became painful for his physiotherapist, Ahmad Jubbawey created a technology fix. For a monthly retainer of $150, the computer science student and his university mate, Yazen Al-Safi, built a text message-based appointment reminder into his physio's patient management system.

Ten years on, the 31-year-old heads Vensa Health, a technology company that sends millions of health and medical-related text messages to New Zealanders each year.

"Having the customer say, 'Hey, I've got this problem' motivated us," says Jubbawey, recalling the "lightbulb moment" when studies took a back seat to applying their new tech skills to a real situation.

After he was made redundant from his first post-graduation technology job, Jubbawey struck out with Al-Safi to create A&Y Technologies, as it was then known, without much of a plan other than a desire to target the healthcare market.

The pair quickly discovered the main vendor of patient management systems wasn't doing anything about integrating text messaging into its product, creating space in the market for their technology.

By 2007 the first version of the company's TXT2Remind service was ready to go, but with Al-Safi moving overseas, Jubbawey was on his own doing the coding, billing and support for the product.

He took out a $3000 ad on the back cover of New Zealand Doctor magazine and the 28 phone calls that came through included some of his first customers.

Jubbawey says that because he had no knowledge of business or the medical industry, he had to learn the slow, hard way how to run a company.

"There were some really painful lessons learned."

But he says the experience taught him to sit back and listen to what was important to the customer and their business.

Appointment reminders are just the tip of the iceberg, says Jubbawey, and lab results, reminders to take medication and recalls for regular health checks are all possible with the Vensa system. A programme in North Waikato that used the technology to contact parents saw immunisation rates among 2-year-olds jump from 55 per cent to 98 per cent in just nine months.

"The fact that we all use mobiles for communicating with family and friends, to get the doctor on this media just added to the trust and duty of care that the care provider is offering."

Jubbawey says the healthcare industry still uses faxes for communication at a time when technology is evolving to the point where by 2016 mobile devices will outnumber PCs 10 to one. "Our job has been to try to close that gap in communication."

As technology evolves, Jubbawey has been studying music apps such as Spotify and Pandora to create a model for accessing content in the health sector.

Still in the development and patenting stage, Vensa is making a multi-million-dollar investment in its next generation platform, which it plans to take global.

Although Jubbawey says he's wary about giving too much away, the new technology centres on the idea of users signing up to the platform and connecting directly with their provider, as well as having access to credible health information.

"55 per cent of people are already Googling to access health information about symptoms and conditions."

The amount of cash needed outstrips the operating profit that can be reinvested, so Jubbawey is on the hunt for extra capital.

He has previously received government research and development funding, but is now talking with partners in New Zealand to bridge the money gap.

Having achieved 70 per cent market share in New Zealand, with 200 medical centres joining each year, the company is looking overseas for growth.

Jubbawey says the use of mobile health solutions in New Zealand is the highest per capita in the world, and this country compares favourably with the United States, where only 40 per cent of primary care physicians are connected to an online IT system.

He has a goal of having 500 million people using the Vensa platform by 2020, and the company has made its first overseas steps, signing up Thailand's Vibhavadi Hospital to a trial of its product last July.

Vensa also caught the eye of technology publisher Red Herring, and was named in its top 100 Asian-based innovative companies. Red Herring is credited with spotting the potential of Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo, Skype, Salesforce.com, YouTube and eBay.

"For me the ultimate success for Vensa is to build a company that is affecting millions and millions of people around the world and doing so in a way where we're saving lives, we're contributing to medical research, building a company that can build itself and operate globally in the US, in Australia, parts of Southeast Asia and the Middle East."

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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