Having built Ooca, Thailand’s first mental health app, its founder Kanpassorn Suriyasangpetch (known as Eix) opens up about how she’s making healthcare more accessible via online video conferencing, using tech to fight stigma along the way. It’s the first episode of Digital Health Interviews in 2023, and we’re enjoying our today’s guest!
Kanpassorn Eix: a graduate of Chiang Mai University, and an ex-dentist for the Royal Thai Army. The start-up entrepreneur, and the first mover of digital mental health entrepreneurs in Thailand. Enthusiast to solve problems, innovate the industry, and help people open up and be more connected to psychology with the use of technology. BBC 100 Women in 2018, and Top 100 Inspiring People of Thailand by the People Award in 2022.
Kanpassorn had the idea to set up a service like Ooca after encountering difficulties in her own search for mental health support. While working as a dentist for the Royal Thai Army, she needed time with a psychiatrist. She had to travel to Bangkok for treatment — a six-hour journey — before sitting for hours inside the clinic awaiting her turn: “In Thailand, there is one mental specialist for more than 80,000 people. Unfortunately, we do not have enough resources. Most of them are staying in large cities. With Ooca, we tried to create a bridge between the psychiatrist and the user, because what really matters is the real conversation.”
The overall healthcare system in Thailand, as Eix says, is quite unique: “Every citizen can have free access to medical care services in the public hospital. There are more than 1,000 public hospitals, including big and small ones as well as care center stations. In terms of infrastructure Thai public healthcare system is very supportive: it’s not too far from public health. But there are some issues if you have a more complex situation. At the same time, we have a very strong private sector in hospital services as well. The practice of insurance buying isn’t very widespread among Thais and is less popular than in Western countries in hundred times. But more than 80% of people are covered by Universal Health Care. They can go to any public hospital and get the service that they need, but sometimes they have to wait for a long time.”
Thailand has been in the Top 15 Countries With The Best Health Care Systems for the past several years. What’s the secret of success?
Kanpassorn Eix: “It’s because of the whole system that we’ve already had. In terms of the medical industry Thailand is pretty advanced. With the usage of technology, everything is seamless. There are also a lot of issues in terms of politics and management. People want to save their faces or to make themselves more popular. Thai citizens push the government to try harder, when it comes to their health and security, to do their best.”
And now let’s come to discussing Eix’s startup. Ooca, which offers online counseling through video conferencing, offers a selection of local psychologists and psychiatrists available for one-on-one sessions conducted online. Users can pick their own professionals to link up with or be matched by the site.
Kanpassorn Eix: “Ooca is a telemedicine platform focused on mental health. In our country, people are conservative and are not so open to mental health issues compared to the West, but we are very progressively opening up more. Nowadays, mental health is most definitely being integrated into pop culture. More people are helping educate people about it and changing their perspective.”
Users can register anonymously and schedule video calls with their chosen mental health professional for 30-minute or 60-minute counseling sessions, starting from 600 baht (approximately $20). The users can rate and provide feedback to the psychiatrist or psychologist, and the conversation between them is strictly confidential.
Ooca also offers packages to corporations. Most of its revenues actually come from contracts with business entities that prioritize the mental health of their employees. Besides counseling services, Ooca also offers tests, surveys, and feedback based on anonymized data to help their corporate clients’ HR teams figure out what’s going on in employees’ minds and where the highest stress levels exist within companies. Recently, it is signed by 65 companies, so the total number of users with individual ones is about 200,000.
Ooca is also reaching out to young people even before they join the workforce. It launched a platform called “The Wall of Sharing” to solicit corporate donations to fund therapy for university students who need it. In such a way it solves mental issues among youth in Thailand in collaboration with educational institutes and organizations participating in the project. Middle school, high school, and university students can access Ooca for free: “We have done this for 3 years, and we have helped around 2,000 cases.”
It was quite challenging to convince licensed practitioners to offer their services on Ooca in the beginning, but after some period of time it became much easier to recruit other providers: “We became the industry standard. We check the background of every candidate: the vision or the mindset has to match.”
In the end, we asked Eix to give some recommendations for startup founders in digital health.
Kanpassorn Eix: “You have to think hard about why you want to become a founder, what drives you to become a founder. You have to be clear with yourself about these questions. I think there should be something that will be the same in ten years, especially if you’re working in healthcare.”
Our previous episode was with Eugene Borukhovich: Health Coach is a behavior change agent.
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