Interview: Lara Helmi of CONNEX Assistance
CONNEX Assistance Managing Director, Lara Helmi, can offer an in-depth perspective on assistance in the Middle East and Africa – and her outlook is undeniably positive
What’s your background in the medical assistance industry, and what does your current role involve?
I am Co-Founder and Managing Director of CONNEX Assistance. Since our inception in 1999, we have become the leading provider of medical, technical and funerary assistance in the Middle East and North Africa. Through our offices in Cairo, Egypt and Dubai, UAE we operate in 15 countries in the region.
How did CONNEX weather the Covid-19 pandemic? Did you amend operating parameters or procedures to adapt to the lack of tourists and different healthcare needs of the populations you serve?
Fortunately, our business models showed a lot of resilience throughout the pandemic. CONNEX Assistance not only services travellers, but also expatriates and corporate entities; this diversity in services, in addition to our vast regional coverage, makes our organisation quite robust in the face of disruptive events. So, while there was a decline in traveller-related assistance, our home care and home testing in local markets saw a massive surge, as people preferred to stay away from medical facilities and received care at home.
We also provided home care to elderly patients who suffered relatively mild Covid-19 symptoms but would need monitoring and assistance. We also had to adjust to the new world the pandemic created. In addition to health and safety concerns we had for our office staff and doctors, there were new challenges in a world of airport closures and fragmented quarantine rules. Some medical evacuations and human body remains’ repatriation became impossible, particularly in the early days. As airports began to open, quarantine rules in different countries also posed their own unique challenges. In some countries, we faced a shortage of quarantine accommodation for patients who tested positive, while in others, our medical escorts would have to factor in several days in quarantine on either side of trips to transport patients.
As we emerge from the cloud of Covid-19, what are you focused on in terms of business growth and development?
With the worst days of the pandemic hopefully behind us, we’re focused on growing our business past pre-Covid levels and diversifying our portfolio of services. Also, strengthening our presence in promising markets with new business units, while developing outbound assistance services. The long-term business relationships with our clients and providers allow us to maintain and develop our strengths as travel numbers return to normal, so we can consider new avenues of growth.
How are you diversifying your business model to accommodate changes in the medical assistance market?
We have identified several opportunities of business growth and are investing significantly in adapting our back-office functions to meet that demand. The next steps include strengthening our presence in promising markets and launching innovative medical assistance services.
Insurers are looking for more medical and other kinds of assistance services from partners around the world. Do you see this as a challenge or an opportunity?
CONNEX Assistance currently provides a comprehensive portfolio of services to insurers, assistance companies and corporates. These range from medical, travel, legal and technical assistance, to concierge and medical facilitation services and travel for treatment. We consider higher demand for more diverse assistance services in larger geographical areas an opportunity and are always looking ahead to scale up different departments within the company to meet that demand.
How are you making use of new technology and telemedicine solutions to meet the expectations of clients?
We strongly feel the pandemic served as a catalyst for some new technologies in our field, especially telemedicine. In addition to being more convenient for many patients, it has opened the door to being the first step in Arab patients in Travel-for-Treament, as well expanding our Second-Medical-Opinion services – projects in which CONNEX Assistance is highly involved.
Are you seeing tourists return to Middle Eastern destinations? If so, are there more ‘typical’ types of calls for medical assistance, rather than Covid-related ones?
Despite the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we have witnessed an increase in tourism throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Non-Covid-related cases actually represent the majority of those we work on, with a particular increase in house-calls. We have also seen a surge in cases in Qatar due to the World Cup, where we did not feel the effects of the pandemic in any way. To say the pandemic is truly behind us in the Middle East would be a very accurate statement, as all countries are now open for business, with traveller numbers returning to close to prepandemic levels towards the end of last year.
How do you evaluate medical providers in order to bring them into your network? Do you rely on external national and international accreditation, or would you always do your own evaluation that includes an in-person visit?
We audit our network annually through in-person visits by a medical team member and network staff. We update all the facility information from updated licenses, insurance coverage and certifications to medical staffing, new medical equipment and capabilities. These visits are also used to build stronger personal relationships with the facility, while constantly discussing how we can improve the workflow and offer a better standard of service before our next visit.
Do you deal with medical assistance for high-risk regions like Yemen or other conflict zones?
CONNEX Assistance has been involved in conflict zones such as Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan on several occasions, and acknowledge that providing for quality medical services in these areas can be challenging. That’s why we often opt for evacuation to Dubai or Cairo for further treatment.
Are you finding it challenging to attract and retain skilled assistance staff for your business? How do you ensure you are an employer of choice?
We’re proud to say we have a high employee retention rate by any company’s standards. Our HR policies, compensation schemes and training programmes mean that many staff will have been familiar to both our clients and providers for many years. Their years of experience and on-ground knowledge are at the heart of our success.
What are your hopes for the future?
CONNEX Assistance has all the building blocks to become a global assistance company. Our team has the necessary expertise and experience, and we are making the necessary investment to grow CONNEX Assistance into a global player beyond the Middle East and North Africa. After more than 25 years leading the way in the region, we are looking to opportunities to expand our business around the world.