When UAE national Ahmad Abdulla Juma Mubarak heard from a doctor in Dubai last year that his nine-month old daughter, Suhaila Ahmed Mubarak, had leukemia, his world came crashing down.
The Emirati father first planned to take Suhaila to the US for the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow, but due to visa issues, he had to change his plan. Instead, he travelled to Korea for her daughter’s cancer treatment.
“At that time, we didn’t have much knowledge about healthcare in Korea,” says Juma Mubarak.
“As soon as we landed in Seoul, we immediately rushed to Samsung Medical Center as Suhaila developed a problem with the central vein that required reinsertion. This perhaps happened because of the stress of long travel. However, even in such a situation, doctors and all the medical staff in the ward did their best for Suhaila, giving us confidence in the treatment process,” he says.
Suhaila, now two years old, successfully underwent the complicated allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) at the hospital, with replacement cells from her sister.
“There are many good hospitals in Korea and I would definitely recommend it for high-quality treatment of childhood cancer,” says Juma Mubarak.
Likewise, parents of two-year old Maryam Mohammed Ahmed Binshaker also chose to visit Korea when their daughter was diagnosed with a critical liver disorder.
“Maryam first had a Kasai procedure in 2018 but after three months, doctors advised her to go for a liver transplant, which was carried out at Asan Hospital in Seoul,” says Maryam’s father Mohammed Ahmed Mohammed Binshaker Al Blooshi.
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Korea has always been at the forefront of advanced medical treatment and research and it enjoys an excellent reputation worldwide, including the UAE, for its quality of patient care and cost efficiency. For years, it has been the destination of choice for UAE residents seeking diagnosis and treatment of critical health issues.
His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, once said, “In running the healthcare system, many countries tend to focus only on the health and neglect the care, but Korea fulfills both, the health and the care superbly.”
More than 20,000 UAE patients have flown to Korea for medical treatment since the Patients Referral Agreement was signed between the two nations in 2011. Last year, 497,464 patients visited Korea from around the world, with 8,983 patients travelling from the Middle East and 4,089 from the UAE for treatment of complex problems, such as cancer, transplantation, cardiac ailments, musculoskeletal disorders and fertility issues.
“One of the advantages of availing treatment in Korea is the fast process,” says Muna Al Kaabi, 55, who is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer at Ewha Woman’s University Medical Center in Seoul. “My nephew had a brain surgery in Korea earlier and I was aware of Korea’s advanced healthcare facilities. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I looked no further than Korea.
“I was able to start chemotherapy right after meeting with the doctor – within two days after I landed in Seoul,” Muna says, who decided to stay in Korea and continue her treatment even during the pandemic.
“The medical system and quarantine procedures are very systematic in Korea. I hope to finish my treatment and return home soon.”
Fifty-year old thyroid cancer survivor, Khamis Abdulla Sultan Al Haatemi, is also happy with the healthcare facilities in Korea.
“When I first came to know about my diagnosis, more than 50 per cent of the airways were pressed by cancerous tumors, so I was very worried,” says Al Haatemi.
“However, as I carried out tests and started treatment at Korea University Anam Hospital, my worries turned into trust. After a long treatment for about four months – involving a surgery to remove the entire thyroid gland and part of the airways and 27 radiotherapy sessions – I was able to return to the UAE in a healthy shape. I started my treatment in Korea in February, when the coronavirus started spreading, but we were able to complete the treatment safely and comfortably with Korea's excellent quarantine and infection control system.”
Measuring patient satisfaction
Patient satisfaction is a reliable measure of healthcare quality, and recent surveys demonstrate that patients have very positive experience in Korea. All hospitals in the country are non-profit organisations that put safety and satisfaction of patients ahead of profits.
An impressive picture is painted by the results of a 2019 Satisfaction Survey of Middle East patients with medical and non-medical services in Korea, which showed a whopping 91.8 per cent expressed their satisfaction – while 100 per cent of patients would like to revisit Korea for medical purpose and recommend Korea to their acquaintance.
“The key strengths of Korea’s healthcare system include abundant medical infrastructure, the national health insurance system, excellent medical personnel, and the accreditation system of medical facilities,” says Deok-cheol Kwon, President, Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI), a government-affiliated institution that supports the enhancement of international competitiveness in the health industry.
Accreditation systems in Korea help increase credibility and enhance service quality. One of such systems specifically targets hospitals that serve foreign patients and designates those qualified in patient safety, medical and non-medical services.
Since its start of operations in Abu Dhabi in 2012, KHIDI has attracted foreign patients and supported the overseas expansion of Korean medical institutions by establishing links with local government authorities and organisations in the Middle East and Africa.
It’s noteworthy that the Korean government operates accreditation systems that evaluate patient safety and medical services. “These systems help increase credibility and enhance service quality,” says Kwon. “One of such systems specifically targets hospitals that serve foreign patients and designates those qualified in patient safety, medical and non-medical services.”
Along with healthcare infrastructure and treatment, Korea has a welcoming approach to medical tourists too, with several centres in key Korean cities being created with multi-lingual staff especially for foreign patients. They offer services that include travel, accommodation, and packages at the finest resorts.
“At that time, Joud was urgently in need of chemotherapy, and the treatment plan was to reduce the tumor size with about four chemotherapies and then perform the surgery,” says a spokesperson of Seoul National University Hospital.
“However, even after giving chemotherapy, the size of the tumor remained the same and the location of the tumor started to invade the blood vessels. These further complicated the surgery. After about a year of chemotherapy, the right hemihepatectomy procedure was successfully carried out earlier this year, and she didn’t require the liver transplant. Doctors also conducted a second surgery, excision of diaphragmatic mass, in June.
“We would like to express our gratitude to the patient and her family, who followed the treatment plan of Seoul National University Hospital and endured the complicated treatment without giving up.”