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Medical tourism boosts UAE health care sector

Industry players offer specialised services to meet growing demand from patients abroad

Image Credit: Gulf News Archives
The CEO of Dubai Healthcare City (above) estimates that currently 15 per cent of its patientsare medical tourists. UAE -based patients also make up the patient numbers.
Gulf News

Dubai: Local beaches and mega-sized malls have long been huge tourist attractions, but now the UAE’s hospitals and specialised clinics are drawing in visitors. And in sizable numbers too.

The UAE’s medical tourism market was worth $1.58 billion (Dh5.8 billion) last year, according to research from Euromonitor International. It is expected to grow a further 6.5 per cent this year to $1.69 billion.

The Dubai Health Authority estimates that the number of inbound medical tourists in Dubai were up 10-15 per cent last year. Tellingly, Dubai Healthcare City reckons the numbers to go up 7.2 per cent annually until 2015.

“Over the last three years Dubai Healthcare City has noted a growth in medical tourism and it is estimated that currently 15 per cent of our patients are medical tourists,” said Marwan Abedin, CEO of DHCC.

Most medical tourists to Dubai are from the GCC and the wider region, South Asia and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries. Also, with the recent decision by DHA and the General Directorate of Residency and Foreigners Affairs to extend medical tourist visas, the number of inbound medical tourists is expected to rise further.

Inbound medical tourists will be able to avail of a three-month medical tourist visa, and will be eligible for extension twice for a total stay of up to nine consecutive months.

While tourists are spilling into UAE hospitals, patients living in the country seem to want to stay home to get treated.

“In 2011, there were around 500,000 patients at DHCC — UAE-based patients made up 80 per cent of that and tourists 20,” said Abedin.

The number of UAE-based patients were up 12 per cent from a year before.

In 2010, Dubai’s health care cluster attracted more than 410,000 patients. From November of last year until the end of January, investments in DHCC have totalled more than $300 million, said Abedin.

For Burjeel hospital in Abu Dhabi, patients from Oman and Kuwait are the biggest sources, said Dr Shamsheer Vayalil, managing director of the facility. “But 60 per cent of patients are Emiratis.”

Although the majority of patients living in the UAE prefer to be closer to home, many others would rather get treated outside the Mena region — in Europe or North America.

Abedin says some patients do so because the country lacks the specialisations they require, which can be found in other countries.

In neighbouring Qatar, a new hospital promises to offer specialised services to women and children. The Sidra Medical and Research Centre is expected to cut down the number of outbound medical tourists as their specialised treatment needs will be met in the country, said William Owen, CEO at the hospital.

“There is a lack of health care opportunity for these two demographics in the region, “ Owen added.

Similarly, Burjeel hospital is trying to retain its UAE-based patients by focusing on fast-tracking services and cutting down the waiting time for appointments, according to Vayalil.

More health care projects are on the way. Projects in Abu Dhabi and Dubai that were in talks in the past two years are now being realised, said Jad Bitar of Booz and Company. The main drivers of the UAE’s medical tourism industry are pricing and quality.

“Quality has three components: quality of medical acts, including good, qualified doctors and correct medical procedures; patient safety as well as patient experience, including greetings and room services, including internet connection,” Bitar said.


Sarah Algethami is a trainee at Gulf News