The Importance of Empathy, Grit and Innovation – The Journey of Ooca with Dr. Eix
Since launch, Ooca has welcomed over 150,000 people onto the platform. Dr. Eix herself has gone on to get recognized as a global tech leader. Named by the BBC as one of the top 100 most influential and inspiring women in the world, she has given Ted Talks, and she and her team have won a World Summit Award (and more!). Most of all, Ooca has helped so many people, and the entire team continues to listen to people so that they can better their journey through mental healthcare.
In this special episode of Commerce Talk, we sit down with Dr. Kanpassorn (Eix), the founder of Ooca, a groundbreaking mental wellbeing app that is transforming access to care in Thailand. Dr. Eix shares the story of why she developed Ooca and further proves the value of foresight and the importance of empathy and grit in business.
So, whether you’re a technology enthusiast, a healthcare professional or simply just curious about what the future holds… This is a conversation that you do not want to miss.
Season two of Commerce Talk aims to look to the future by navigating the intersections of business, technology, innovation and leadership to help businesses and people stay one step ahead.
You can also check out this Q&A from the episode (edited for clarity and brevity).
Dr. Eix: Hi everyone. My name is Eix. I’m the CEO and founder of Ooca. So Ooca is Thailand’s first and largest mental wellness app and we have been running since 2017. But actually, I had the idea like my initial first idea at least 2 years before that. Before that I was practicing as a dentist for around two years. I had my personal experience dealing with my own mental health for a long time, ever since I was a teenager. So, I saw the importance of mental health and I also saw the struggle that a lot of people, including myself, struggle to get treatment. I see a lot of that. It has to be traded with the quality of life, it’s also a trade off with opportunities in their own life as well. So for example, in my experience, I had to change psychiatrist like six times, until I found one that I felt comfortable with or one that I felt that I could best click with. My psychiatrist was also quite far away from where I was stationed at so back then I was stationed at. I was stationed at a province that was at least like 6 hours away by car. So every time that I needed to talk to a psychiatrist or when I needed to have a session, I would have to wait for at least like a month. I would also have to cancel all of my patients for that day. So at the very same time, even though I’m not directly a psychiatrist or a psychologist, I do see a problem and I feel that with the use of technology like this could be improved. Yeah that’s why I yeah I got the idea, why not use telemedicine to help people access better help but also help directly with stigma. Back then? The practice of using telemedics and telepsychiatry was not very common. It was something that was still questionable in the eyes of the practitioner. But I could see that in the future this could be the way to go. There had been some research going on in more developed countries like in the US or UK. So, back then there already had been some guidelines coming out. In terms of Tele Psychiatry, I really felt that applying Tele Psychiatry could actually help Thailand’s mental health situation and so that’s how everything came together!
Aziza: That’s an incredible story, with human-centeredness at the heart of everything is especially impressive given the big need. I’d like to know what the current state of mental health services is in Thailand?
Dr. Eix: I would say that Thailand is quite advanced compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. We have standard care, which is universal healthcare, meaning everyone has the right to be reimbursed and can reach out for help. There are financial struggles, but there are also other types of schemes that people can access. The majority of us have undergone the universal healthcare scheme. In addition to the government-supported scheme, there are private clinics and hospitals, and a lot of organizations working to improve mental health services. The government is promoting not only treatment but also prevention. However, managing time and resources can be a challenge, and we may not have a lot of resources. The number of psychiatrists per capita is around 1 to 80,000, so it can be overwhelming when someone seeks help in the public sector. People living in difficult situations often find it hard to reach the hospital due to financial constraints, working hours, or other responsibilities. So, I would say we are quite progressive, but there is still room for improvement.
Aziza: You mentioned stigma earlier. Before we talk more about Ooca, how is Ooca addressing the stigma around mental health? What were your hopes when developing Ooca in addressing stigma around mental health?
Dr. Eix: Before Ooca, people had to go to hospitals or clinics to get treated. I was thinking, what if there was a solution that allowed them to connect with psychiatrists without that kind of notion? Is there any type of access that we could provide, such as going online and allowing them not to formally disclose their legal names? This approach helps them open up more and feel more comfortable accessing the service. There are different levels of acceptance, where people may not know if they have a problem or may be unsure about seeking help. Ooca serves those who are not quite sure if it is appropriate to reach out or go to the hospital. We help people get access and connect easier. Our platform is anonymous.
Aziza: One thing that stood out to me a lot when I went to Ooca was the convenience and accessibility of the platform. Other services and platforms often have barriers to getting help, but Ooca was quick and easy to use with comforting language. I know this wasn’t done by accident. What went on in the background to ensure that the platform was accessible and convenient for people visiting?
Dr.Eix: It’s not just one checkpoint, but a learning curve that the product team needs to go through to understand how to humanize the whole journey. It’s important to care about how people feel during their user journey. Our process involves research and checking how users feel during the happy and unhappy path. It’s not 100% perfect, but we’re always trying to improve with a humanistic and conversational UI approach.
Aziza: Developing a platform like this couldn’t have been easy. Can you tell me more about the main challenges you faced and how you overcame them?
Dr. Eix: There were major challenges in each phase of the company. The initial challenge was executing everything and starting. The second was finding product-market fit. We need to know where we’re at and how we got there. It’s important to build a good team that aligns with the company’s vision and culture. Fundraising was also a challenge. Ooca is a mental wellness startup that started in Thailand, which made it difficult due to the niche market and stigma against Thai founders. I think those are the key things that we had to surpass. As a founder myself, I’m not from the background where it’s usually easier to make decisions. I’m not from a top school in the US, not from Ivy League, not from the UK, not ex-Google, ex-Facebook, ex-Amazon, and such things. I’m just a dentist. In some cases, they might think, ‘hey, dentists is not bad,’ but then I have no background in building a business and thinking in a way that we could actually scale this. So, a lot of times, it’s quite questionable for them to judge and make decisions. Those are the key difficulties, depending on the phase of the company.
Aziza: It’s like there were so many things stacking up against being able to make Ooca as big as it is now. It has 150,000 users on the platform since it launched in 2018. What do you believe have been some of the main aspects of the success of the platform?
Dr Eix: I think the first aspect is, number one, we are the first one in the business. So, our branding is quite out there. Branding is, of course, very important. I see telemedicine as something more like a hospital type of business, where you can have a lot of hospitals anywhere and everywhere, and sometimes doctors go around and shop around too. But how to actually attract people and bring trust, I think Ooca’s Company’s branding is important, and also we have to be ahead of the curve in terms of whatever mental health innovation.
Aziza: Speaking of staying ahead of the curve, this will probably come in as a three-part question. So, you know this season is all about looking to the future. I’d like to ask you: How do you see the future of healthcare? How will technology and innovation impact the future of healthcare, and where amongst all of this is Ooca?
Dr Eix: I think the future is hybrid. We have an online service. We should think of a user as a whole, like they’re a human being. What would you do if you had your own problems or if you have the problem yourself? Online wouldn’t be enough. What are the rest of the care that we could provide a user to make it more holistic? So definitely hybrid. We are coming up with offline solutions, so that users are more well-connected, and the treatment is better served, and also collaborative operations with hospitals, clinics. Yeah, in that sense, I think like in terms of healthcare, the future is hybrid. Also, I think people right now are very much hyped tools like AI, ChatGPT, and such. I think there have been some examples that were using engines from ChatGPT to help people in terms of mental wellness. I think those are the things that we should look for. We should look for what are the key things that we learn from implementing those tools to the user. For my observation, the key thing would be whether or not if the user actually feels that they’re empathized, if the counterparts that they’re actually having conversation with are actually not human, how do they actually perceive. But actually, they’re not being empathized by anyone but tools. Yeah, so at the very same time, it should be very beneficial to assist the process. But how can we actually make it fruitful and believable?
Aziza: Yeah, like the meaningful connection, you know, between the person using a service and AI.
Dr. Eix: Yes,it kind of diminishes once you learn that whatever conversation has happened, there’s no one behind it, you’re not being understood by anyone. How to actually bring that up, how to actually scale that, or how to actually adapt that.
Aziza: Yes, and the willingness to be vulnerable as well might be impeded because you know that you’re not speaking to a person who may have studied within this field, who also combines their studies with…
Dr Eix: Yes, so out of all that, it’s not that AI will not work in terms of mental health. No, I don’t think so, but I think there needs to be a better way to play like human experience, which is interesting. Presented or formulated, or like there should be other types of processes that they could actually plug in and help improve.
Aziza: Even helping with the data management side. It’s an interesting future that we’re stepping into. I’d like to ask, you know, during all of this, what has been the single most important thing you have learned as a founder and CEO in this space?
Dr Eix: I think the single most important thing is grit because not always that you would do things right. So you have to be able to put your mind into that mode where “I’m just going to kick it and do it.” Yeah, so there have been a lot of times that I question myself, like, should I keep going, should I stop? There’s a lot of time I feel like, hey, I want to stop. Want to stop doing this. This is so hard for me, like I could have a much better, easier life waiting for me. My mother, during the first four years starting Ooca, she constantly told me to stop. She constantly told me, “You could be better off, do something else or maybe it’s easier for you to do nothing. Yeah, you look like you’re in a mess or you look like you are actually running into chaos by yourself at your own will.” So at some point in time, there might be some uncertainty, or that uncertainty might already have happened. Yeah, but life would bring you surprises at times, and things might change.
Aziza: What has been the best piece of advice that you’ve gotten during your journey?
Dr.Eix: I think the best piece of advice that I got was that there was one time, like this mentor straight off, with a straight face, telling me, “You’re a CEO. It’s your responsibility now. You’re the best one that can do whatever you want to do, whatever happens. Even if your arms or your legs get ripped off, you have to keep walking.”
Dr. Eix: That’s what he said to me. I’m like, really? So, I think that kind of thing is where it’s important to keep me going because there are times when I feel really sad, like when some key member leaves or there’s some conflict going on, or sometimes if I question myself if I have done the right thing, but this particular word hits me every time. Like, whatever happened, you have to keep going forward.
Aziza: Wow, it’s incredible, and it will stick with you. Like, it stays there in the mind. If you were to impart advice onto anybody who may be listening to this, who may be in a position who, you know, the people we spoke about at the beginning who might have had an idea but never went forward with it, or maybe wanting to improve their current services, what kind of advice would you offer to anybody who may be listening?
Dr. Eix: I would say that the more clichéd version would be like “idea 0, it doesn’t matter. You have to execute it.” These are the things that we hear, we keep hearing all the time, right? I would, in which I really support that, is really true. Like, idea what? Nothing if you don’t do it or maybe it could be worth it if you are a consultant. So, I think, take a look more at understanding who you are, what kind of risks you can take. What burdens or responsibilities do you have to consider or if your personality or if your own constraints are appropriate if you want to be an entrepreneur or not? Yeah, it’s not always that you have to be an entrepreneur. You have the idea that’s good enough and you know the drills, you know the risks that could happen, and you have that mental fit that you could try to break through. Then, perhaps it might be okay to give it a try. But if you consider yourself like, “Hey, I cannot take that much of a risk and so forth,” maybe join forces with those that already have done something and align with what you want in your vision. Ah, maybe that’s a good option as well. Have us think about it. Yeah, maybe we have more options than what we think.
Aziza: I love that, I love that part of the end as well. There’s always extra options there. Not one way is the only way. And what is coming up for Ooca that maybe you’d like to let our listeners know about? Is there anything that you’d like to tell us?
Dr. Eix: Okay, so for now, Ooca is focusing 100% on dominating Thailand. Yeah, but of course, in the future, we would like to expand to other countries as well. So, if anyone would like to refer us to those in Thailand, I would be very happy. You could share our link with them, www.ooca.co, or download our application or Ooca on both Android.
This episode was developed as part of a three-part-mini-series for #WorldHealthDay where we embarked on a journey to the future of healthcare, exploring the fascinating world of machine learning and AI as we moved to further understand how these ever-evolving technologies, tools and applications will impact the future of health and well-being. From diagnosing illnesses, designing treatment plans and bettering human experiences.
In part two of our #WorldHealthDay mini-series on Commerce Talk, we sat down with Dr Avneesh Khare, a Physician turned Med Tech (AI) consultant and educator to talk about the importance of regulation, education and ethics when it comes to AI in healthcare.
In part three, we spoke to Dr. John Sheehan, a respected and future-focused Radiologist, Clinical Director and Healthcare Technologist about how collaboration, leadership and continuous learning can help us better serve people in the healthcare industry and beyond.