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MedEssist CEO Joella Almeida on community pharmacies,…

MedEssist CEO Joella Almeida on community pharmacies,…

Joella Almeida’s resume spans the e-commerce and payment industries, but she always knew she wanted to be in health care. It was in her blood, or, at the very least, in her extended family. “My grandfather was a pharmacist, my mother-in-law’s a pharmacist,” she says. “I’ve somehow been around pharmacists my whole life.”

Between her and co-founder Michael Do, also a pharmacist, MedEssist was born in 2018 and entered the University of Toronto’s Health Innovation Hub accelerator the following year. The technology company helps brick-and-mortar pharmacies offer their services through an accessible online portal. Pharmacies do a lot more than sell vitamin supplements and fill prescriptions these days — they can prescribe for “minor ailments,” ranging from influenza to migraines in some provinces, without a doctor.

Ontario’s new minor ailments list for next year includes sprains, uncomplicated UTIs and hemorrhoids — and the new rules couldn’t come sooner. With burnout and uncompetitive nursing-staff pay stretching Ontario’s medical system beyond its limits, Ontarians looking for treatment need every avenue they can access.

A fierce debate is also raging around the involvement of private medical companies in Ontario’s health-care system as a whole — but Almeida says Canadians are looking for more options to get the help they need.

Most of your career has been in e-commerce, marketing and strategic partnerships. What made you decide to run a pharmacy technology company?

I have been in startups in the payment industry, and then in e-commerce — but I was also one of the first 2,000 Shopify partners in Canada. When you are part of Shopify in that way, you’re an independent worker, but it really exposed what it was like to be building a platform. Shopify gives anyone the ability to reach customers around the world and make them feel like they are bigger than they are.

I was introduced to Michael through one of my best friends, who was a pharmacist. When I saw what Michael was building, I showed him what I was doing at Shopify. I was like, “Wait a minute, we can actually take this way bigger than you think you can. I’ll show you how.” And so, we put our brains together, and that’s how we ended up building MedEssist.

In Ontario, many pharmacies are managed by big chains. They probably have their own internal platforms. How does MedEssist compete with that?

That’s a great question. We don’t compete with that. What’s unique about MedEssist is we actually work with independent community pharmacies. There are about 11,000 community pharmacies across Canada — places like RX HealthMed, Guardian and I.D.A.

Did your vision for how MedEssist would operate change as the pandemic started and the COVID-19 vaccines began rolling out?

Pharmacists have been immunizing for a decade across the world. We had a very, very successful flu season with our product right before the COVID-19 vaccines came. That product went so well that many industry partners ended up getting involved. The University of Toronto has been exceptionally beneficial. We truly scaled across the country because we had to. We had no other choice. And we built a platform that was customizable and modular that allowed you to do that.

When you think of a platform like Shopify — what Shopify did was not novel. There were many website builders over the last decade. What Shopify did differently was make their product very modular, very accessible, very customizable and everyone could use it. That’s really what we brought to the average independent community pharmacy. A community pharmacy relies on us for prescriptions, for vaccines, for testing, consultations, the full gamut. They run all of their pharmacy services on MedEssist each and every day.

Given the backlog we’ve seen in Ontario’s medical system, do you expect there’s going to be increased demand for MedEssist? Do you think you’ll need to alter your platform to help pharmacists keep up?

We actually have a minor ailments platform that’s available in other provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan. We’re taking pharmacies and integrating them into the rest of the health-care system. Pharmacies can refer you to COVID testing, if they don’t offer it, or — in six cities in Ontario — we can connect you with a nurse for home phlebotomy if you have physical disabilities. Or we can connect you to a virtual physician. That access is opening the door for Canadians to access a different health-care provider.

What we’re trying to do is raise the standard of care for all of our pharmacies. They’re all committed to providing a convenient experience for their patients, but also sharing inventory, sharing knowledge, sharing resources, and providing the best health care possible. With MedEssist, you can expect the best standard of care from all of our pharmacies regardless of size or brand or where they’re located.

In Ontario, there is a big debate about the further privatization of health care. What are your thoughts on that? You’ve talked about prioritizing access for patients, but you are running a medical company.

When you look at companies like Maple or Dialogue or League, there is a big shift that is happening — and it is not drawn in by us. Canadians are trying to access health care on their own, trying to find better ways to get the care they need in the time frame that they want it. I think it is a challenge, but I do think it’s getting better. And I think some of these are options Canadians want. But I don’t know what that would look like in a few years, from a political perspective.

MedEssist was accepted into the Google for Startups Accelerator program for women founders. You’ve been in other accelerators before — what are you hoping to get out of this one?

We’ve been part of Venture Lab and Brampton Venture Zone and H2I at the University of Toronto. The thing about Google that’s most exciting to us is it is one of the newer cohorts. They’re making this incredible leap into the space because — this is not news — women get less venture capital funding than our male counterparts. We do need that extra help and that extra support, and I do appreciate it. A company like Google is one that we can rely on to expand our services.

Our next milestone is to onboard our first U.S. customers, because we’re already getting interest from there, and we really think Google can help us manage this expansion — which involves us crossing a border that we haven’t crossed before. We’re also scaling our platform to manage patients on a scale that we haven’t done before. Up until this point, we’ve served about a half-million patients.

Women-owned businesses are less likely to receive venture capital or angel funding. Do you think that can be overcome with mentorship? Or does there need to be a more structural change to give women founders more access to capital?

I think you truly need both. If we didn’t have the attention that we have today, a lot of unconscious biases would not be addressed. When you’re pitching, and you identify as a woman, you tend to get questions that are more akin to: ‘How will you use this money? How will you grow this money?’ They’re very cautious questions. I think my male counterparts would get questions like: ‘We totally believe you’re going to do this, but what can we expect around it?’

You do need programs that address that. You also need programs on the mentorship side — if you haven’t done something before, you’re going to need some guidance on how to get there. Whether you’re learning a new language or a new instrument, you always have some kind of framework.

How does the U.S. market differ from what you’ve experienced working in Canada?

There are a lot more digital health apps in the U.S. I think the infrastructure is built to support them and help them scale in a very different way compared to Canada. When you look at the U.S., there are so many more opportunities where we can change the accessibility of health care.

Did you know that you can actually predict someone’s life expectancy based on where they’re born? That’s not something that should be a fact. People generally tend to access the health care that is most local to them. The fact there’s a pharmacy on every block in North America means that if you can help a tiny pharmacy, whether they’re a mom-and-pop shop or part of a massive chain, then we’re able to affect health care on another level.

You’re hoping to onboard your first U.S. customer — are there any other expansions you want to make to your platform in the next five years?

In the next five years? That’s a lot of time for a tech company. I think what you’re going to see from us is the enablement of local pharmacies on a bigger scale. I won’t say a global scale — I don’t think your local pharmacy is going to start offering services in Greece. But we’ll be helping mom-and-pop stores do things for their communities that they currently can’t on a much wider scale.

MedEssist is one of the only platforms across Canada where you can enter all of your registration in nine different languages. That was very important to us. During the pandemic, we all saw how badly the Fraser Valley in B.C. and Peel Region in Ontario were impacted. There were small things that we could do to address those gaps. One is to have patient access in different languages where they could feel comfortable going to the pharmacy because they can sign up in Hindi or Chinese or Korean.

When you’re in a tech company, you have to think about how you’re building tech that enables patients to access services the way everyone else does. If you’re building something that only 20 per cent of the population can use, you are ultimately leaving out the demographic you need to bring into this environment. So I think things like that are what you can look forward to in the next five years — enabling access on a grander scale, which has typically been forgotten.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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