The shortage of healthcare professionals is an issue that the UAE is trying to address Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

Over the past 45 years, the UAE’s healthcare sector has made great strides, placing the nation in a position where it can surmount any health challenge that comes its way.

A focus on primary healthcare has been the catalyst for hundreds of hospitals and clinics, and the result has been higher life expectancy, lower rates of infant and maternal mortality, and drastic improvements among most of the key areas that crystallise the health of a nation’s people.

But even these advancements are not enough to rid the UAE of its health hurdles and pressing problems. Its population remains vulnerable to the two-pronged threat of emerging communicable and non-communicable diseases. While this is a global problem, the country continues to face specific issues, chiefly crucial gaps in its health service workforce and the constantly rising cost of healthcare.

When these factors are added to others such as changes to insurance cover affecting those with chronic and long-term illness, a lack of dedicated facilities for the elderly, and cuts in health benefits to staff as companies grapple with the economic downturn, it is clear that the journey to a truly, wholly healthy UAE that began in 1971 is still some way from its conclusion.

Rather than being pessimistic and downbeat, however, there are many among the UAE’s healthcare sector who see problems as the gateway to opportunities and solutions — so long as there is progressive thinking.

Innovative approach

“The UAE has the potential to leapfrog other health systems in how it deals with problems such as disability, ageing and non-communicable diseases,” says Ali Hashemi, Managing Partner

of Dubai-based health-care investment firm Avicenna Partners.

The nation can harness new trends in policy, technology and services faster and more effectively than others, he adds. “Increasing healthcare connectivity through home-based technology is one way, but so is the use of innovations to enable even those with complex medical conditions to enjoy the fullest possible quality of life.”

For Dr Azad Moopen, Founder, Chairman and Managing Director of Aster DM Healthcare, the UAE’s health sector is a success story — particularly through infrastructure and policy development, the introduction of healthcare free zones, and an emphasis on home-grown medical research.

At the same time, he recognises the need for the industry to be strengthened in a cross-sectoral way that reflects a forward-thinking country, and that collective enterprise can accomplish what individual efforts may not be able to.

He says the UAE Vision 2021 — the aim of which is to equip the nation with a world-class healthcare system — will address prevalent and pivotal health issues such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and obesity through the ten national key performance indicators it has identified.

To this end, new facilities, attracting qualified professionals to deepen the healthcare talent pool, and embedding best practices in hospitals and clinics are essential.

Dr Moopen points to recent market studies that forecast the GCC’s healthcare sector to grow by over 12 per cent by 2020, to about $70 billion (Dh257 billion). “This indicates great potential for growth and also opportunities for public-private partnership as a collaborative effort to achieve the overall healthcare objectives of GCC countries,” he says.

“While the sector is expected to continue its growth trajectory in the coming years, availability of talent remains an area that needs to be addressed... by both the public and private sectors.” Aster DM Healthcare has ventured into education by opening a medical college

and hospital in India to train future healthcare professionals with a view to help bridge gaps in the UAE’s workforce.

Government support

Clancey Po, CEO at Burjeel Hospital in the capital, says government support has played a major role in the growth of the sector and a vital step has been the implementation of mandatory health insurance in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, with plans to extend it to the other emirates. “Insurance covers essential benefits critical to treating diseases and maintaining health,” says Po. “The aim is also to reduce chronic diseases by encouraging regular medical check-ups.”

Another key step has been enforcing accreditation for doctors in the UAE: by the (HAAD) and (DHA.) “All medical practitioners have to be certified by Health Authority — Abu Dhabi and Dubai Health Authority before they can practise in any emirate. Because of such strict standards being enforced, there is a very high quality of medical outcomes and very few cases of medical malpractice,” Po adds.

According to the World Health Organisation, top causes of death in the UAE are heart disease, road injuries, stroke and diabetes. Apart from road accidents, these are caused by a whammy of lifestyle influences: the rise in purchasing power, change in lifestyle, lack of physical activity and poor eating habits. Consequently, the country has seen a substantial increase in chronic conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer. Po says about 70 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women in the country are considered overweight.

“Diabetes in particular remains a threat that could slow down plans to have a healthier country in a short span of time,” says Po. “The UAE has come a long way in providing special care and countering this issue and the government is still putting in a lot of effort and investment in growing a healthier nation by providing the best health-care facilities in various communities.”

The UAE fares well by many parameters. “Progress has been seen in many areas. The construction of health facilities in the UAE is keeping pace with the region. Healthcare groups are now expanding to outlying areas to serve various communities with personalised solutions,” says Po.

So as we enter a new year, there are several reasons why the nation’s health will continue to remain a top priority for the government.