Medical Tourism to Get Fillip

The time is right for the UAE to make forays into the fledgling global medical tourism industry as experts say that the country has an edge over ‘perception of destination’ as compared to other countries.

Doctor proceeding a mammography on a patient

According to industry experts, the global medical tourism industry is still young but has brighter chances of growth as demand for healthcare is steeply increasing worldwide.

The UAE-based Chief Strategic Officer of Medical Tourism Association, USA, Dr Prem Jagyasi, says several factors need to be considered before any country decides to promote medical tourism, including a thorough analysis of local healthcare infrastructure.

‘Only the over-capacity services should be promoted for international patients leaving the first choice easy healthcare access for residents. In this case, the UAE can start promoting only a few services in medical tourism, but not without proper study and analysis,’ he explains.

As per the industry rules, the quality of care and perception of destination play an important role.

‘The UAE already has an edge over perception of destination as compared to other competitors. Moreover, the recent government decision on compulsory health cover for residents and visitors alike has sparked a healthy competition for better quality in medical services. I think it is an ideal time for the UAE to initiate their presence in global market,’ he explained.

A thorough study on over-capacity services and its promotion is vital before the local industry is opened up.

‘Only certain services should be promoted through a particular organisation but this needs proper evaluation,’ says Dr Jagyasi, adding that the important step would be to develop and create an umbrella (council) in which all other government, semi-government and private health authorities would promote services as one brand.

‘It is important for the UAE to create a one brand,’ he emphasises.

Identifying a target market is an important factor as each geographic target market has different factors.

‘The UAE needs to evaluate and penetrate most potential target markets through strong marketing strategies. Understanding of international health insurance and legal issues is also important,’ says Dr Jagyasi.

Treatment in UAE cheaper than in US, UK

Dollars in hand

The global medical tourism could be estimated at $60 billion. With the rising healthcare costs and longer waiting time for undergoing medical procedures in Europe, America and Asia, the Middle East is in a prime position to establish itself as a world-class, cost-effective alternative destination for the booming medical tourism market.

Jonathan Edelheit, President of the Medical Tourism Association, said the global medical tourism industry could grow 10-fold over the next two years, representing a dynamic business opportunity for the Middle East.

In a Press release issued during the recent Arabian Travel Market 2008 in Dubai, Edelheit said that Jordan and the UAE have launched initiatives to meet this growing demand as they look to establish themselves as world-class, cost-effective alternative destinations for the booming medical tourism market.

Dr Jagyasi believes there are many factors involved in the selection of medical tourism. ‘The key factor is cost, patients travel because they get reasonable price treatment with almost same or better standard of care abroad. Another reason is lack of availability of treatment in patients’ home countries,’ he explains.

He believes that the most important reason is a combination of benefits which give additional advantage such as reasonable care with affordable price, or high-end quality treatment with the tourism factor.

‘Cost is determined on various factors, but on comparison, for example, a total knee replacement costs $48,000 in US and $28,000 in the UK, while the same procedure would cost a mere $7,000 in India. But treatment in the UAE remains cheaper than in the UK and US. ‘For example, a  gastric bypass procedure cost ranges between Dh150,000 and Dh200,000 in US. In the UK it ranges from Dh100,000 to Dh125,000, and in the UAE it costs between Dh45,000 and Dh65,000.

According to World Health Organisation (WHO) rankings, the highest spending on healthcare is in the US with per person spending standing at $6,697 in 2005. Despite this it falls low in WHO rankings on provision of healthcare.

The pre-operative and post-operative care are the main challenges at present. Also, considering the growth of the industry, many government, semi-government and private institutes are promoting medical tourism aggressively without being aware of the legal, ethical, quality of care process, language and cultural barriers involved in the business.

‘There is need of a proper accreditation process especially for medical tourism business,’ adds Dr Jagyasi.

Dubai leads from the front

Burj Al Arab Hotel

As per the figures released in the Arab Health 2008 congress held in Dubai in January, the investment in the healthcare industry in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) spotlights a total health investment of $60 billion by 2025. The UAE currently has nine hospital projects and also leads in providing healthcare services.

Currently, Dubai has six public hospitals — New Dubai Hospital, Rashid Hospital, Al Maktoum Hospital, Al Wasl Hospital, Al Baraha Hospital and Al Amal Hospital — with a collective built-in capacity of 1,717 beds.

In the private sector, there are a total of 17 hospitals including Gulf Specialty Hospital, Al Rafa Hospital for Maternity and Surgery, American Hospital, Welcare Hospital, NMC Specialty Hospital, New Medical Center Hospital, Zulekha Hospital, Down Town Hospital, Jebel Ali International Hospital, Belhoul European Hospital, Belhoul Specialty Hospital, Neuro-Spinal Hospital, Emirates Hospital, Iranian Hospital, Jebel Ali Hospital, International Modern Hospital and a total capacity of 879 beds.

The multi-billion-dirham Dubai Healthcare City project has boosted Dubai’s image as a hotspot for medical tourism and also attracted medical professionals and patients worldwide. New and existing hospitals outside DHC are also being renovated and are slated to add approximately 1,461 acute care beds by the year 2010.

The government-owned Rashid Emergency and Trauma Centre is equipped with 120 beds and will accommodate 500 acute care beds after being revamped in 2010. Among the other facilities being upgraded are Saudi German Hospital (250 beds), American Hospital (180 beds), New Canadian Hospital (160 beds), Al Zahra Private Medical Care Hospital (100 beds), Al Safa Hospital (50 beds), Bader Al Sama (25 beds)and Saeed Lootah Teaching Hospital (76 beds).

At the DHCC where Phase I & II are under construction, a total of seven hospitals have already been approved while another eight are in the planning stages. The approved hospitals are Plastic Surgery Hospital I and Plastic Surgery Specialty Hospital II with 25 beds each. The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital (20 beds) and the Urology Specialty Hospital (30 beds) while General Hospital I will focus on heart diseases and General Hospital II on obstetrics.

The University Teaching Hospital slated for completion this year will have 400 beds. The total number of beds at the DHC by end 2008 is expected to touch 780. Also planned are a Sports Medicine Hospital (100 beds), General Hospital III (150 beds), Neurosurgery Spine Centre (100 beds), Psychiatry Hospital (150 beds), Children’s Hospital (100 beds), Rehabilitation Hospital (300 beds), Long-term Care facility (100 beds) and a nursing home (50 beds).