When Dr Kassem Alom arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1978, he immediately started to question whether the UAE really was the right spot for a young doctor looking to start up his own business.
“There was nothing here,” he recalls. “There was one hospital - called Central Hospital - which consisted of a group of caravans. When it rained, the water just flooded inside.”
Alom’s decision to stay and carve out a niche for himself in the UAE capital was vindicated last year when Al Noor Hospitals Group, the company he founded in 1985, and which is now Abu Dhabi’s largest private healthcare provider by far, listed on the London Stock Exchange. The initial public offering (IPO) netted $342m, valuing the company at $1bn.
Along the way, Alom treated Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the late President of the UAE, has been appointed to the Supreme Council of the Ministry of Health, and is one of the few expatriates to be voted onto the board of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Al Noor Hospitals has three hospitals and nine medical centres in Abu Dhabi and is looking at expanding its offering into the rest of the Gulf.
But IPOs were very far from Alom’s mind when he first landed in Abu Dhabi 35 years ago. As the emirate’s first specialist, and only the 90th registered doctor in the entire country, the landscape couldn’t be more different from the medical universities in Seville and Madrid, where he had studied, and Charing Cross Hospital, in London, where he had practised. Among the problems the local medical profession faced at that time were the difficulty of accessing medicines and the need to attract qualified staff to come and live in the UAE.
Still, Alom persevered and decided to set up his own polyclinic in 1985, which was followed by inpatient facilities a year later. His practice achieved a number of landmarks; it was the first to offer laparoscopic (keyhole) surgery, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), plastic surgery and liposuction in Abu Dhabi during the 1990s. The chief executive also says it was the first to bring in continuing medical education (CME) for its staff, and adds that there’s a lot more to come.
“I think we have to place an emphasis on paediatric hospitals and on maternity as well; the standard is good but we still need to fill that gap,” Alom says. “These are two areas the private sector needs to invest in. We also need to invest in nursing homes, so elderly people don’t occupy hospital beds, and to invest in homecare, which exists in the west, and is much more efficient and economical than sending a doctor to different people.
“[There’s also] infertility, and we still don’t have good sports medicine in the country, and [we need to look at] rehabilitation centres. We have nuclear medicine, but this is not enough because oncology is not served well. The country is investing heavily in technology, but we still lack professional people to cope with this technology, bearing in mind most of our staff are expatriates.”
Al Noor Hospitals has certainly benefitted from the introduction of compulsory health insurance in Abu Dhabi in 2007. The scheme, which is being rolled out in Dubai this year, now covers 98 percent of the emirate’s inhabitants. UAE nationals are covered by the government’s Thiqa programme (many of whom are treated by Al Noor Hospitals), while expatriates are covered via a subsidised basic plan provided by Daman, or by an enhanced insurance plan. Whereas previously healthcare was provided free of charge for all, compulsory insurance - plus direct incentives from the government to allow the private sector to invest in healthcare infrastructure - has spurred competition.
“Healthcare has boomed between 2007 and now,” says Alom. “Now you can say that the market has already matured, and the trend until now has been [the development] of many general hospitals in the private sector. But I think there is room for quality centres of excellence, so I think it’s still attractive to invest in healthcare in the coming years.
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