Saudi healthcare costs are strain on finances - report

Economist Intelligence Unit report says rising costs being driven by growing cases of chronic disease

The rising costs of providing quality healthcare in Saudi - driven by annual population growth of 2.7 percent and a rising incidence of chronic disease - will place a strain on the Saudi’s finances, warns a new report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

Healthcare in Saudi Arabia: Increasing capacity, improving quality?, sponsored by Philips, includes EIU analysis and comments from a panel of nine prominent experts.

“Amid population growth and lifestyle changes in Saudi Arabia, demand for essential healthcare services is on the rise,” it concluded. “As a consequence, existing healthcare infrastructure is coming under strain; at the same time, investments in new healthcare capacity  are placing a growing burden on public finances.”

The report said World Health Organisation figures showed Saudi spent 4 percent of GDP on health on 2010, well below the 12.4 percent average for high-income countries. It’s 9.4 physicians per 10,000 population was also well below the 27.1 average, while the 22 hospital beds per 10,000 population fell short of the average 56 beds.

However, pressure on the system would emerge from a population forecast to be 35.4m by 2025, with the 45-64 age bracket the fastest growing, as well as higher rates of chronic diseases. WHO data shows 29.5 percent of males and 43.5 percent of females aged 20 or over are obese, compared to the high-income average of 21.8 percent and 21.6 percent respectively.

The report found that if Saudi Arabia wanted to achieve its ambitious plans for healthcare capacity, the kingdom needed to build on its financial incentives for private sector investment and cut red tape.

It said despite investment in education and training of local manpower, demand for foreign healthcare workers was likely to remain strong in the coming years.

Providing qualified manpower was the biggest challenge that Saudi Arabia faced as it expanded its healthcare capacity, the report said.

However, it also found Saudi’s strategic healthcare plans recognised the need for reform and that the current system was not sustainable. “The kingdom plans to develop its tertiary-care hospital infrastructure in particular, in order to provide sufficient care across each of its provinces,” it said. “Saudi Arabia’s 2013 budget includes funds for 19 new hospitals, on top of the 102 currently being built.”

The report said ensuring quality healthcare was a major challenge for Saudi and recommended greater oversight and regulation, including tighter accreditation standards.

“Priority must be given to sharpening the supervisory role of the Ministry of Health to ensure quality as the ministry hands responsibility for financing and delivering healthcare services to the private sector,” he said.

It said other factors to boost standards included promoting innovation through investment in research and development, which currently lagged international standards.

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