UAE health
Founding Father of the UAE Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan at Corniche Hospital in Abu Dhabi in 1977. The UAE has steadily built a robust healthcare system in the past five decades Image Credit: Gulf News Archives

In 1971, the year of its foundation, the UAE’s average life expectancy rate was 62 years. In 2019, it was 78. The contrast between these two World Bank figures — a more than 25 per cent rise — can be attributed to the country’s rapid economic development, which brought with it improved healthcare infrastructure.

Now, as the nation celebrates its jubilee year, targets are set even higher for the next 50.

One person who has been here to witness much of the sector’s transformation first-hand over the past few decades is Dr Azad Moopen, Founder Chairman and Managing Director of Aster DM Healthcare. “I remember that there used to be four government hospitals and one private hospital, with very few clinics and pharmacies in Dubai, when I came here in 1987,” he tells GN Focus. “We now have 32 hospitals (26 private hospitals and six government hospitals), 429 clinics and 868 pharmacies in Dubai.”

Future vision

Over the past few years, the UAE Government’s Vision 2021 for healthcare has been working towards a number of goals to improve the country’s well-being: Increasing the number of doctors, nurses and accredited medical facilities, while lowering the prevalence of smoking, obesity, diabetes, as well as deaths from cancer and cardiovascular disease.

“The healthcare industry in the UAE has witnessed major growth and transformation due to significant investments in the private sector and the governments’ diversification initiatives over the past couple of years,” explains Krishna Dhanak, Executive Director at Alpen Capital, an advisory firm operating across the GCC and South Asia.

“The roll out of mandatory healthcare insurance has increased the utilisation of medical services at private and government healthcare facilities.”

Medical tourism

Growing the medical tourism sector has been another key focus of the UAE government over the past few years — and the country is now in pole position for a boom in the space. “I think the UAE has never been better positioned than it is today to capture medical tourism,” says David Hadley, CEO of Mediclinic Middle East.

“The UAE as a destination to live has always been very attractive; however, recently (on top of being voted one of the safest cities in the world) we have been recognised for the excellent manner in which we collectively managed the Covid pandemic — proving the brilliance of the UAE healthcare system.”

Dr Siddiq Anwar, Consultant Physician at Shaikh Shakhbout Medical City, explains, “Historically, when the UAE had a younger population, there wasn’t really a requirement for tertiary healthcare services, as the country would just send patients abroad.

“However, as the population ages and lifestyle diseases rise, it’s going to become expensive to send people abroad for treatment.”

He also points to a change in the profile of medical personnel coming to work in the UAE.

“A lot of doctors would come here towards the last few years of their career – academic researchers wouldn’t come, so the healthcare system earlier faced a shortage of medical talent.”

However, he credits government initiatives such as the Golden Visa, which gives doctors a ten-year window to live and work in the UAE, the improvement of air travel links, and the opening of global centres of medical best practice such as the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics, for taking the sector forward. “These hospital chains are invested in developing high-quality healthcare,” says Dr Anwar.

Dr Moopen agrees. “There are many highly qualified doctors who are now ready to take up jobs and relocate to the UAE because of the social and physical infrastructure along with stability provided through the long-term visa programmes. This will attract highly skilled people to be stationed here to provide advanced treatment to the patients.”

Dr Anwar adds that a highly competitive medical ecosystem – including the Mayo Clinic running Shaikh Shakbout Medical City, Cleveland Clinic, King’s College, Mediclinic, the Aster and Burjeel groups of hospitals and clinics – is good for the customer and will attract more patients from across the MENA and Indian sub-continent.

Dhanak says, “Dubai and Abu Dhabi lead the region in attracting the highest number of medical tourists in the region. As per the Medical Tourism Index, the cities were ranked as the sixth and ninth most popular medical tourism destinations in the world during 2020-21.

“Dubai witnessed a 4 per cent year-on-year rise in medical tourism arrivals in 2019 to reach 350,118. Asian medical tourists accounted for the highest share, at 34 per cent, followed by those from neighbouring Arab countries (28 per cent) and Europe (17 per cent).”

Dr Moopen explains, “The UAE is strategically placed to attract patients from the Middle East, Africa and the sub-continent, CIS and even Europe. The excellent connectivity and infrastructure of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the cultural similarity and language comfort of the people are major reasons.”

However, some challenges lie ahead of the country’s medical tourism sector. Dhanak says, “Despite significant development within the sector, the UAE continues to experience supply gaps for a number of specialty segments such as cancers, neurological disorders, cardio surgeries, and trauma and rehabilitation services”

He adds that international travel restrictions due to the pandemic have also impacted tourist arrivals.

Hadley says, “One challenge will be cost, versus lower income countries such as Thailand and India.” However, he adds that the need for quality should overcome this.

As the UAE celebrates 50 years of its union, the diagnosis for the country’s healthcare sector is a positive one. ■

Technology driving growth
With a growing and diverse population that has ever-changing needs, the UAE healthcare sector has been adapting, says Ashish Koshy, CEO of G42 Healthcare, an Abu Dhabi-based developer of AI and cloud computing solutions for healthcare and other industries.“Driven by technological advancements, particularly in AI and big data, the UAE healthcare sector is transitioning to a more sustainable and preventative model, one that will enable the achievement of the ambitions outlined in the national healthcare vision.”
He adds that the pandemic has driven demand for telemedicine and wearable technology. “We have also seen care patterns changing, with chronic disease patients who required routine visits to the hospitals, now empowered with solutions that keep them at home and avoid unnecessary travel and exposure to the virus. Technology solutions will play a key role in helping the UAE achieve the triangulated aim of healthcare: enhanced care, better experience and lower cost.”
In terms of treatments, the recently opened Dh700-million Neuro Spinal Hospital, located in Dubai Science Park, will operate the country’s first robotic cyberknife and radiosurgery centre. Meanwhile, David Hadley, CEO of Mediclinic Middle East, says MRNA technology can improve the progress made on diseases such as cancer. “I am personally very excited to see what precision medicine can bring – Mediclinic Middle East has recently invested in this initiative.”
Koshy explains, “With data-driven solutions, clinical decision support systems are helping improve care outcomes, patient experience and operations of care provider teams by optimising scheduling, staffing, and wait times at hospitals, bringing efficiencies at lower costs.”