Abu Dhabi: More screening programmes and a sophisticated primary health care system will help encourage early cancer detection among patients in the UAE, health professionals at the Sixth Annual Middle East Healthcare Innovations Summit 2011 in Abu Dhabi concurred.

Cancer cases are not properly documented due to an un-unified cancer registry system in the country, which results in patients being admitted to hospitals in advanced stages of the disease, UAE-based health professionals said as they took stock of their challenges.

"Approximately 4,000 cancer patients have recently been treated across private and public hospitals. However, many of these patients chose to complete their treatment outside the UAE, which makes it harder to track down exact numbers," said Dr. Ali Abdul Razek, Executive Director at Gulf International Cancer Centre (GICC) — which has treated nearly 500 cancer patients every year since 2007.

The UAE has two cancer treatment centres: Tawam Hospital in Al Ain and the GICC in Abu Dhabi, with a third one due to open in Dubai soon.

Challenges

"We need to utilise existing centres, and employ more technicians. Before deciding to undergo treatment, doctors must be honest with patients, and inform them of possible side effects caused by chemotherapy and radiation; however many times we are discouraged by family members to speak honestly with our patients — a dilemma we face every day," said Dr Abdul Razek.

Dr. Noora Al Hammadi, chairman of the Radiation Oncology Department at GICC, said she still found it hard to convince women in their 40s to undergo yearly mammogram tests. "To date, many women don't wish to discuss their breast cancer condition with a doctor due to cultural barriers. We receive young patients in their stage-two due to lack of awareness and taboo."

Dr. Waleed Hassan, chairman of the Urology Department at Tawam Hospital, called for more public-health campaigns and education rather than focusing on good surgeons alone.

"If you're looking to improve cancer survival rates, the best thing to do is implement sophisticated primary health services through better insurance policies, so that patients are screened and detected early. Doctors are also facing a shortage in narcotics related to various mental illnesses due to narcotics being considered an illicit drug," Dr. Hassan said.

There was also a need to focus on home care for cancer patients, Dr. Al Hammadi said. "Many expatriates chose to be treated in hospitals, since their health insurance policy doesn't cover home care treatment. There's also a preconceived idea that resting at home rather than in a hospital means dying sooner, which isn't the case."

Nellie Shuri Boma, chief medical officer at Al Rahba Hospital, called for mandating yearly cancer screenings and insurance support. "Covering mental illnesses through a long-term policy will help save lives and money, prevention is always better than cure."