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Gulf Arab Region Building Up Medical Infrastructure

Gulf Arab Region Building Up Medical Infrastructure

Monday February 20, 2012

At the Arab Health Congress in Dubai, hospitals across the world demonstrated their plans to expand within the Gulf Arab region where the fast growing and aging population has triggered an increasing demand for health services.

Many at the conference admitted that a significant percentage of patients from the Arab world travel abroad for medical treatment, to East Asia, Europe and even North America. On the other hand, foreign doctors and hospitals have identified Gulf countries as fertile ground to expand in order to reduce outbound medical tourism.

The Middle East is a large region, home to 300 million inhabitants and 18 countries. Each of these is a different health market, with its own characteristics. Governments throughout the region are trying to develop their local health industry, both in order to meet spiraling demand from a growing and changing population, and in order to attract medical tourism to their country.

The Arab population is growing at a rapid pace, generating strong demand for more healthcare capacity. Lifestyle changes are causing a marked increase in health issues that were previously far less common, thereby multiplying the medical treatment capacity needs of this growing population base. The growth in demand is far outstripping current medical capacity.

Saudi German Hospitals Group (SHG) is building 30 hospitals in the Gulf Arab region. The latest has opened in Dubai's central district Barsha and the next is a 300-bed hospital in Abu Dhabi. Lifeline Hospital Group have three hospitals in Abu Dhabi, a fourth will follow soon in the first quarter 2012. It also has two clinics in Oman and one in Dubai. Lifeline services are not for everyone as patients stay in luxurious five-star rooms. Saudi-based Dr Sulaiman Al-Habib Medical Group (HMG), with seven Gulf medical centres in operation and four under construction, wants to tap into the bulging demand for healthcare services and may build another four hospitals outside of Saudi Arabia.

The German Medical Centre was the first clinic in Dubai Health Care City (DHCC), a free zone for the health industry, and plans to build a second 200-bed hospital as the number of has increased from 20 a day to 900 a day.

Dubai Health Care City struggled in the wake of the emirate’s real estate crash after 2008.Among the biggest disappointments was the central 400-bed University Hospital, which was hit hard by the construction slowdown, and is yet to schedule a firm opening date. Although the free zone has 90 clinics, it has struggled to retain clinics and smaller brands. The US-based Mayo Clinic was one of several to shut. In 2009, DHCC also closed its outpatient care centre Dubai Medical Suites (DMS), just six months after its launch. The centre was intended to attract foreign hospitals.

HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein was appointed in September to lead an overhaul of the $5.3billion healthcare city, in a bid to attract fresh healthcare brands and increase Dubai’s chances of capturing a part of the medical tourism market. The wife of Dubai’s ruler aims to shift DHCC away from real estate and back to healthcare. Gulf Healthcare International, which has headquarters in DHCC, says the city needs to attract high-profile brands if it has any chance of making a profit from healthcare tourism, as with high prices, it can only sell on quality. DHCC is targeting locals, expatriates living in Dubai and people from other Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. But it has strong competition from Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Healthcare and medical tourism in the region is in a melting pot. The main target for hospitals is to persuade locals not to go abroad or elsewhere in the region. The secondary target is professional expatriates, but not the larger numbers of low paid domestic, service and industrial expatriates. The third target is people from other countries in the region, and some nearby countries. Whether the often-promoted target of European and American medical travellers is ever going to happen is doubtful. A new question is whether the culture, climate and lack of language skills will put off the two biggest growth markets where people are looking for quality rather than low price, of Russia and China?

Abu Dhabi Health Authority is sending around 3,000 patients a year to foreign countries such as Germany (33%), England (22%) and the USA (16%). Those who are transferred to foreign hospitals mostly have needs or diseases that cannot be easily met or treated within Abu Dhabi such as malignant tumour, pediatric surgery, organ transplant, cardiovascular diseases, spinal disorder, etc. The UAE including Abu Dhabi is sending its patients to other countries due to a lack of medical staff, high cost for treatment and surgery, and lack of trust in its medical staff and equipment. 80% of doctors and 90% of nurses in the UAE are foreigners.

According to a 2011 EIU (Economic Intelligence Unit) report, UAE is spending 2 billion dollars per year in sending out patients to foreign countries. 130,000 people from the UAE visit foreign countries for medical treatment, including 4,500 where the expenses are covered by the government.

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Tags: medical tourism, outbound medical tourism, Arab Health Congress, Saudi German Hospitals Group (SHG), Lifeline Hospital Group, Dr Sulaiman Al-Habib Medical Group (HMG), German Medical Centre, Dubai Health Care City, UAE, international patients

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