Published in Sep-Oct 2021
UZMA KHATEEB-NAWAZ: How was Dr Essa Laboratory and Diagnostic Centre (Essa Lab) established?
FARHAN ESSA ABDULLAH: Both my parents were doctors. My father received his PhD from the University of North Carolina and my mother from Harvard. My father taught at several universities across the world and in 1987, he noticed that deaths among children from infectious diseases were increasing, so he came back to Pakistan to improve diagnostic procedures. That is how our first branch came into being on August 14, 1987 (subsequently, all our labs were inaugurated on national holidays). At that time, culture sensitivity reports took four to five days to process and at our labs it was reduced to 24 hours, which was a major achievement. After I joined Essa Lab, I began to expand the business and transform it into an organisation.
UKN: How has Essa Lab expanded since then?
FEA: We now have over 100 branches in Pakistan in all the major cities and several second-tier cities; we offer the full spectrum of services as far as laboratory tests and diagnostic services are concerned. We recently started Dr Essa Dental Services and have six clinics so far, in addition to physical therapy and rehab facilities for the elderly. We have also established Pakistan’s first fitness academy – Dr Essa Prime Fitness Academy. This is for trainers, so that they can provide customised services to their clients according to their age group. We are also involved in research and development and have three international offices where collaborative studies are conducted; one is in the UK and two in the US.
UKN: What differentiates Essa Lab from other laboratories and diagnostic centres?
FEA: As an organisation, we aim for two things. Firstly, we changed the concept of customer service. When our customers walk in, we realise that they are already stressed and anxious about their health, so we make an extra effort to make them comfortable. We have trained staff who talk to them and listen to their apprehensions. This is not a common practice at most other labs. Secondly, we envision our labs to emerge as the industry standard and therefore we place a lot of emphasis on maintaining quality standards.
UKN: What other innovations have you introduced?
FEA: We were the first lab in Pakistan to introduce an app last year; through it, our customers can select a service and our staff will go to their homes to collect samples or conduct ultrasounds or even Covid-19 tests. This is especially useful for people living abroad who want to schedule tests for their parents in Pakistan. The reports are uploaded and can be viewed from anywhere in the world.
UKN: What areas other than app development are you focusing on?
FEA: Providing reports on an urgent basis. For example, if you get your sugar test done, you should not have to wait for an entire day for your results; we do it in four hours.
UKN: How do you manage to keep your rates lower than your competition?
FEA: My father never wanted our rates to be exorbitant because he wanted to make things easier for our patients. Our rates are competitive because our objective has never been to mint money; my father wanted to serve humanity and that remains our top priority.
UKN: Whom do you consider to be your competitors?
FEA: We do not consider anyone to be our competitors. We work hard to improve ourselves and believe in collaborating with other labs to improve industry standards. As Convener of the Central Standing Committee of Hospital, Clinics and Laboratories of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industries, I have worked hand-in-hand with other labs to make the industry more ethical and improve standards. In fact, we have a unique Continuous Laboratory Education Programme through which we voluntarily invite two to three participants from other labs; our objective is to train everyone in the field. Forty percent of the people who attend these sessions are from Essa Lab and the remaining 60% from other labs. We don’t charge for these trainings.
UKN: Who are your primary customers?
FEA: We have two kinds of customers: individual and corporate. We were the first lab to provide services to national and multinational organisations and have labs embedded in some of them, such as Karachi Port Trust, K-Electric and Sui Southern Gas Company. We also have facilities at major airports in Pakistan for Covid-19 testing.
UKN: How has Essa Lab tackled Covid-19?
FEA: We were instrumental in establishing the first Covid-19 isolation centre at Civic Centre, Karachi. When nobody knew what Covid-19 was, we established a lab there within three days, in addition to a ‘bio safety bubble’ which ensured that not a single staff member was infected. We have, in fact, been among the frontline warriors in fighting the pandemic. We made a ‘container city’ for doctors who were not allowed to go back to their homes and had it sponsored. In Ormara, we established a testing facility for the Pakistan Navy. Other than that, we trained policemen on how to fight and prevent Covid-19 and how to handle criminals with Covid-19. We provide tests and free vaccinations at our labs now.
UKN: What other areas is Essa Lab involved in?
FEA: We conduct several CSR activities. Our main priority is to support the entrepreneur ecosystem and encourage young people to become entrepreneurs so that they can create jobs for other people rather than be job seekers. We do this by providing seed money and incubation facilities to would-be entrepreneurs. We also organise lectures at higher education institutions where we invite professionals from various industries to talk to students about their professions.
UKN: What prompts you to do so?
FEA: To bridge the gap between what students learn at college and what they will eventually do once they join the workforce. In Pakistan, students are not exposed to the real job market and there is a big gap between industry demand and academic curriculums. The lectures we organise give students a better idea about trends in workplaces and give them the opportunity to visit different workplaces and get internships. We are also running schools in interior Sindh.
UKN: What CSR activities do you conduct for the general public?
FEA: Lectures to create health awareness; we have over 60 doctors who go to various organisations and educational institutions doing this. We have worked with the prison system and have helped amend laws; as a result, Sindh is the only province in Pakistan where the word jail is not used. It is now called a prison or a correctional facility. A few years ago, I was Convener of the Oversight Committee for Malir (Landhi) Jail, Home Department and Government of Sindh, and used this opportunity to make improvements. We installed water treatment plants and improved the quality of food and hygiene standards there. We established a vocational training centre to teach prisoners how to use computers, repair motorcycles and mobile phones, in addition to tailoring skills. Furthermore, we try to provide jobs to prisoners after they are released. In a village, we are establishing a hospital and creating awareness about why it is important for young girls not to be married at a young age. We also organise Women Empowerment Rallies through which we have so far taught over 400 young women to ride motorcycles – every month we train about 40 to 50 women. Our vision is to empower everyone so we hire visually impaired people and transgenders at our call centres and other departments where they can be accommodated. In fact, Essa Lab is the only health organisation in Pakistan to employ people who follow all faiths.
UKN: How do you promote Essa Lab?
FEA: We are in the midst of establishing a marketing department and our marketing efforts are currently limited to print and word of mouth. We are about to launch a YouTube channel where we will publish informative videos of doctors speaking about taboo, health-related topics; it will create awareness and further strengthen our brand.
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