According to a recent Lancet study the mental health issue continues to grow across Asia-Pacific. The research shows that 4 per cent (Singapore) to 20 per cent (Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia) of the adult population experience a diagnosable mental illness in any given year.

The study also indicates that in some countries – such as China, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Malaysia – prevalence rates have increased. It found that mental, neurological and disorders, which accounted for 7 per cent of disability-adjusted life years across China in 1990, had risen to 11 per cent by 2013.

The growing significance of the issue of mental health as well as a slow acceptance of the disease, is allowing for commercial solutions driven oft times by startups. One such technology company looking to drive education and provide better access to quality care is Naluri.

Using technologies like Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and so, the startup is looking to tackle the issue head-on. However, this Malaysian startup has had its own hurdles to overcome.

We spoke to CEO and Co-Founder, Azran Osman-Rani about his journey with the company and why mental health. He was previously CEO of iflix Malaysia, an internet television service for emerging markets, and founding CEO of AirAsia X. Together with his Co-Founder and President, Dr Jeremy Ting, he is hoping to make Naluri the gold standard for mental health solutions in Malaysia and the rest of the region.

Find out what else he had to share.

Naluri platform screenshot

How do you think startups and corporations in Southeast Asia should address mental health issues in their companies? How do they overcome the taboos that still surround the topic?

We have seen significant positive developments with industry leaders recognising mental health is a very real epidemic that directly affects employee performance and the organisation’s bottom-line.

When we work with leading companies in the Energy, Financial Services, Communications and Retail sectors, we quantify the levels of Depression, Anxiety and Stress in their workforce. This is the first time they are seeing the distribution of mental health risks by severity among their employees – and 40%-50% of white collar employees in Malaysia have elevated mental health risks.

Digital has proven to be a great way of overcoming traditional taboos. Employees feel safe when communicating with a convenient and secure third-party service. This enables them to get help and talk to professional psychologists online conveniently and confidentially, without needing appointments or being seen reaching out for help.

The use of technology to deliver mental health services has been around in the US for a while. How has adoption been in Southeast Asia?

Although we start from a very small base, adoption has been very fast. For Naluri, we have seen a 10x growth in 2019 vs 2018 as more organisations seek digital solutions that can offer help at scale.

What have been some of the major obstacles you have faced in growing the brand?

As an early stage start-up, we don’t have the luxury of resources to build a high-profile consumer brand publicly. We focus more on B2B development efforts and reach out to employers, insurers and healthcare providers individually.

It is time-consuming and requires longer lead time, because we are an unknown and young consumer brand. But with adoption rapidly increasing, this becomes less of an issue with time.

How are you using technology to deliver your services? You mentioned AI being a part of your offering.

Firstly, our users use a mobile application that provides a comprehensive set of features that address health holistically. We are changing the traditional way that physical health and mental health is treated. Traditional providers treat them separately, but they are in fact intricately linked.

We then embed a number of features that educate, engage and monitor progress for our users.

Where AI comes in, is in our back-end decision support. We use it to analyse a lot of data from our users, to recommend to coaches which users to prioritise, what engagements, and when are best times to engage.

We do not use AI to communicate with users – e.g, chatbots, because that tends to be a poor experience. We don’t substitute humans who connect with empathy. However, we use AI to augment human professional coaching to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Who are some of your current customers and how are you currently working with them?

We don’t disclose our corporate employer clients, but they are industry leaders in energy, financial services, communications and retail. Of our public collaborations, we are working with leading insurance clients like AXA and FWD. 

With our team of 50 doctors, psychologists, dietitians and fitness coaches, we help our clients screen employees and policyholders to preemptively identify those with health risks, and enroll those identified in a four-month Naluri programme sponsored by their employees or insurers. We connect them with psychologists via the app to help them work through their blood results, depression or anxiety. In doing so, we are able to provide early intervention, rendering assistance to them before issues escalate. Furthermore, as users chat with and build rapport with our coaches, they find it easier to confide in them when the issues do arise — in situations of sudden stress, or when they have a panic attack, for example.

Naluri app screen

What are your expansion plans for Naluri – are you looking to take your solutions outside of Malaysia?

We now have a team in Indonesia and the app is available in Bahasa Indonesia. That’s the main expansion focus, together with Singapore. We have also had exploratory discussions in the Philippines.

What can we expect from Naluri in 2020?

Foremost, Naluri is primarily about better health outcomes.  We want to get better at delivering quantifiable clinically-significant health outcomes. In 2018, 57% of our users achieved clinically-significant improvements. In 2019, 62% did.

As we focus on outcomes, we deepen our therapeutic areas of focus. At our core, we focus on clinical areas where lifestyle changes and mental health (depression, anxiety, stress)  play a big part in getting better. This includes diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, renal, cancer and chronic pain. 

Cover image is as follows: (L-R) Azran Osman-Rani, Dr Haryati, Dr Jeremy Ting