Article #11 | Word-Class Quality Care Transforms the healthcare landscape of the UAE

Dec 16 2018
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The UAE’s commitment to be a leader in offering advanced, high quality and integrated healthcare services gained international recognition once again in 2017 when it ranked first globally—for the fourth year in a row—for the number of healthcare establishments accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), the world’s largest healthcare accrediting agency. While this achievement attests to the high capabilities of the UAE’s healthcare system, it also demonstrates how the UAE has redrawn the global competitiveness landscape by adopting internationally-accredited protocols and standards as it seeks to fulfil its Vision 2021 objectives of becoming among the world’s best countries in terms of quality of healthcare, sustainability of healthcare services and achievement of health safety.

“This is no mean achievement, considering that just two decades ago, subsidised or free medical care was the norm in public hospitals; and residents and citizens alike opted to travel abroad for even minor treatments,” says Dr Raza Siddiqui, CEO of the Arabian Healthcare Group and executive director, RAK Hospital, UAE, who has been witness to the dramatic evolution of healthcare in the UAE since his arrival here
in 1998. “Today, the roll out of mandatory health insurance schemes, the adoption of a ratings system for public hospitals, and public-private partnerships in the healthcare arena have led to an acceleration of growth in this sector.”

This transformational journey, he adds, was mostly driven by the changing and rising needs and demands of a growing population. “Twenty years ago, the population of the UAE was a mere 2.5 million while today, it is touching 10 million. Obviously, there had to be a change in the status quo as the complete onus of delivering care could not remain the responsibility of the government alone. Increasing private sector participation supported by government investment has therefore been the cornerstone of UAE’s development strategy in its efforts to build a robust healthcare system that is able to deliver top-notch services across all aspects of the medical industry.”

With the evolution of the healthcare system, it is important for the key stakeholders to ensure that the strategy plan of the private sector is aligned with the vision of the country, and what is in the best interests of the people it serves, believes Dr Raza. “We live in challenging times; the downward plunge of oil
prices has had an impact on all sectors of the economy including healthcare, necessitating the need for stronger involvement of private entrepreneurs. As the government is allocating more resources towards public health, the next step forward relies on two critical factors: optimisation and maximisation. This, I believe, is the name of the game that will take the healthcare industry in the UAE to the next level of success.”

The key word here is “efficiencies”, he explains. “If we have duplication of services, efficiency will suffer. Everyone stands to lose if there are 20 players providing cardiac services, and if none of them seem to have optimum numbers. Duplication can be avoided only when the government and private sector share a unified vision. Then, it becomes possible for both entities to work on their core strength areas such that the resources available are put to optimum use and the resulting efficiency and price benefits are passed on to payers, patients, and others.”

An integrated strategic plan, he adds, will not only make the country self-sufficient but also transform it into an ideal, meaningful medical tourism destination. “It has been observed that the UAE population seeks treatment overseas chiefly for cardiac, cancer and advanced orthopaedic care. If we could create centres of excellence in these areas, it will not only address the needs of the local population but will also attract international medical visitors to the region. Currently, the UAE domestic market is touching 10 million, the GCC has a population size of around 100 million while the MENA market is much larger in both size and scope. We are therefore talking of huge opportunities and I believe that as healthcare providers in the region, the private sector—with their experience and expertise—has to rise to the occasion and take a more responsible approach in scaling up the supply side of the increased demand for general and specialised healthcare services in the UAE.”

The UAE has achieved top global rankings for accreditation of its healthcare establishments both in the private and public sector. This attests to the prevalence of best practices and high standards of care.

The current practice of some health insurance players to sell their policies at lower rates will have to be stemmed if timely, quality healthcare has to become the standard, asserts Dr Raza. “The UAE has achieved top global rankings for accreditation of its healthcare establishments both in the private and public sector. This attests to the prevalence of best practices and high standards of care. But when insurance providers go low on prices, it speaks of a mismatch in the healthcare ecosystem, and adversely impacts the advances made in the sector as it forces the local population to seek relevant services outside the country.”

What needs to be done, therefore, is to smartly structure the system so that it is possible to maximise on the immense opportunities available and optimise on usage and bring in maximum efficiencies so that it safeguards the interests of the patients, payers, providers, policy makers and other stakeholders, opines Dr Raza. “With the pool of numbers in the region and by integrating our resources, we can bring in economies of scale to make this a reality.”

The shifting demographic profile of the UAE also needs to be taken into account when making strategic plans in the healthcare sector in the region. As Dr Raza says, “In ’98, the population in the UAE above the age of 50 was less than 5 per cent while in 2030, that number is expected to be around or more than 20 per cent. At the same time, the region is also facing the challenges of non-communicable diseases and has adopted a preventive and early diagnosis approach by creating an awareness about lifestyle diseases and encouraging the promotion of healthy lifestyle practices. The recently concluded Dubai Fitness Challenge: 30×30 is a case in point and the initiative taken to promote an active lifestyle and make fitness a healthy habit for life is laudable. The preventive approach has also thrown up immense opportunities for growth in the wellness sector.”

On the other hand, the rapid rise in population in the 65 plus age group is leading to an increase in demand for acute care services. The demand for rehabilitation and long-term care have grown and are projected to increase in the coming years. Assisted living clusters could also soon be a possibility in the region, he adds.
Another core area that healthcare providers are focusing on in a big way is advanced digital health solutions. “This is what integrated healthcare is all about; so, many of the conditions may be monitored by the patient at home and remotely by the health professional which is critical to managing cost and maximising efficiencies,” says Dr Raza. “Indeed, patient engagement is a key emerging trend in healthcare and it is not just the younger generation who are tapping into technology to monitor or engage in their healthcare needs. As health information technology becomes more user-friendly and accessible, there is an encouraging trend in technology adoption growth across all age groups.”

The Middle East’s digitally savvy population is one reason why the region could embrace AI and robotics in healthcare more easily, he adds. “Robotics has the potential to transform healthcare delivery as it brings about speed and accuracy in both diagnosis and treatment. Although the human touch has remained a key element of the healthcare experience, we will also soon be looking at a scenario where this influence is minimised and big data will emerge as the chief player. Accordingly, when a patient undergoes a scan, the scanner will not only scan but also diagnose with the help of big data available.”

Despite a challenging global economy and low oil prices, the healthcare sector in the UAE has witnessed major expansion programmes with mergers and acquisitions becoming commonplace, adoption of a patient-centric model, and tremendous improvement in the overall delivery system. The ongoing consolidation trend has not only boosted the quality of healthcare provision but also helped in driving up efficiencies.

In addition, says Dr Raza, regional and cultural factors have contributed to the tremendous growth of the health tourism market, especially in Dubai. “Dubai’s tourism infrastructure is one of the best in the world; its outstanding hospitality credentials have also enabled it to attract skilled medical professionals to the region. To retain such talent and become the top medical tourism destination, what we need here are first-rate surgical and medical services in critical disciplines. The plans to open organ transplantation units in the UAE—following the organ transplant law that came into effect in March 2017—is therefore a step in the right direction. Patients will no longer need to travel abroad for such treatment and apart from providing outstanding physician expertise, it also attests to the highly sophisticated facilities available in the country. Such demanding treatment specialities have the potential to transform healthcare delivery and I look forward to seeing the UAE becoming a top centre of healthcare expertise and innovation.”

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