Article #6 | UAE Makes Further Strides in Medical Tourism

Oct 09 2018
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UAE Makes Further Strides in Medical Tourism
By: Raza Siddiqui, CEO, Arabian Healthcare Group, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE

Recent months have seen the UAE medical tourism sector achieve significant progress, with several new initiatives to expand the country’s healthcare infrastructure. All this shows that the UAE has tremendous potential to come up as the next important medical tourism destination for the people of this region. It is already ranked amongst the top 20 global medical tourism destinations, according to a study undertaken by a Dubai-based medical travel consultancy, covering North America, South America, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Gulf regions, Asia and the Far East. Research estimates put the value of UAE’s annual medical tourism market at US$1.6 billion, with a 7% growth expected by end of 2013.

Just as all countries seeking a slice from the global medical tourism market are doing, the UAE has also tried to stimulate the sector with policy initiatives and development programme. In terms of administrative measures, the introduction of the three-month medical tourist visa, which can be extended twice up to nine consecutive months to attract foreign patients, has added a major impetus to the sector. Similarly, short-stay visas for specialist doctors needed to work in operating theatres for as little as one day has made it easier for hospitals to bring the experts. Additionally, thousands of medical professionals are travelling to the UAE for various healthcare conferences where medical tourism is a key subject of deliberations.

A major medical tourism initiative was announced by Dubai last year to unify medical tourism procedures in collaboration with Dubai Health Authority, Dubai Healthcare City, General Directorate for Residency and Foreigners Affairs (GDRFA) and the Department of Tourism and Commercial Marketing (DTCM), amongst others. The Authority seeks to identify gaps in services, building capacity and raise the level of investments in the sector, including the participation of the private sector.

The Dubai Health Strategy 2013-2025 incorporates a master plan aligned with the Dubai Strategic Plan 2015 aiming to provide residents as well as visitors with access to internationally recognised levels of healthcare and transform the emirate into a hub for medical tourism.

As part of the strategic initiative, DHA has announced plans to build additional hospitals and clinics to strengthen healthcare delivery. To begin with, three new hospitals and 40 primary health centres have been planned. These include the Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Hospital on Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Road, Al Maktoum Hospital in Jebel Ali’s Al Maktoum Airport area and the Al Khawaneej Hospital. The DHA strategy also takes into account support services, including the hospitality requirements of people accompanying patients. The authority has plans to build two fivestar hotels specifically for this purpose.

The medical tourism initiative will also comprise hosting medical exhibitions, participating in overseas exhibitions, encouraging global healthcare providers to set up businesses and increasing government and private investment in healthcare.

The head of Dubai Health Authority believes that the number of medical tourists receiving treatment in the emirate will reach millions annually by the end of the decade. Dubai Healthcare City is planning to create new specialist centres to enhance the city’s appeal to medical tourists. The Dubai Health Authority estimates the number of medical tourists in Dubai is increasing 10-15% each year, while about 15% of patients in Dubai Healthcare City already are medical tourists.

DHA’s experiment with the traveller’s clinic, established in 2009, has been a big success. It is one of the most specialised clinics in the public healthcare delivery system and the first of its kind in the UAE designed to serve the needs of tourists coming in to, or transiting through Dubai, or residents travelling elsewhere. The aim is to ensure a safe stay and travel to all those who are either coming or leaving Dubai. According to the records, more than 17,000 travellers visited the clinic last year.

Besides the Dubai hospitals, world-class hospitals such as Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi, RAK Hospital in Ras Al Khaimah and well-established healthcare facilities in other emirates are also attracting medical tourists to this country.

The sector is set to be boosted further, with the addition of Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, which though primarily meant for
local people, hopes to receive medical tourists from abroad as well. Most international patients visiting the UAE originate from neighbouring countries with little or no access to quality care, for example Qatar, Oman, the Turkic States, and from Iraq, Iran, and Libya.

Sharjah has also announced plans to enter medical tourism, mandating a new free zone for healthcare, medical and pharmaceutical companies and institutions, physiotherapy and massage centres, healthcare consultancy services, hospitals, medical transport services, spas, sports and social clubs, health-related IT institutions, and other healthcare facilities.

According to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the UAE healthcare market is expected to reach AED43.7 billion in 2015. Out of the 40 million transit passengers at the Dubai airport alone, on average 1,500-2,000 patients change flights to travel to medical tourism destinations daily. With the UAE’s excellent hospitality and healthcare infrastructure, it should be possible to attract some of them to seek treatment here. This way medical tourism can complement the thriving tourism industry. If the emirates target even 500,000 medical tourists per year, the revenue contribution can be in the region of AED10 billion, which is 50% of the earnings by the tourism industry. The UAE can hope to position itself alongside Singapore and Thailand, both of which offer quality healthcare and good hospitality infrastructure. India has good healthcare, but it is not so good in terms of hospitality. The UAE has excellent hospitality and good healthcare, making it a winning combination.

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