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Mon 4 Feb 2008 04:12 PM

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Buying into the hype?

A local tendency toward highly specialised healthcare comes at a price that many UAE residents are not able to afford.

Dubai has a reputation for offering more style than substance, and this trend has typically been reflected in the healthcare sector. Last month's Arab Health event is a case in point. While the exhibition showcased the latest and greatest in healthcare innovations, the announcements drawing a crowd focused on the high cost deals between local hospitals and manufacturers. Nearly all of these featured an exclusive piece of equipment, a fat price tag, and the words ‘first in the UAE'.

While competition is a good thing, particularly in the business of healthcare, this tendency towards highly specialised care comes at a price; one that many of the UAE's residents will not be able to afford. As we move towards a private healthcare system, niche medical centers brimming with the latest in diagnostic imaging are creating a market of cut-throat competition that rival hospitals must either buy in to, or risk alienating high-end patients. It is, almost, a medical arms race. If one facility has a $1.5 million CT scanner, woe betide the facilities that don't.

While changing the medical landscape, this is a war that is not necessarily improving it. It is creating a cost conundrum; low-income patients on restricted medical plans are not eligible for high cost tests, yet public hospitals have been warned they will be expected to survive on what they can bill. As clinics phase out money-losing services in favour of profit-driven specialist care, we will fall headlong towards a tiered healthcare system where few facilities accept poorer patients.

In the Middle East, as around the world - the health gap mirrors the wealth gap. When we have a glut of MRIs, but an almost total absence of preventive care programmes, it's a strong indicator that we need to rethink our priorities. In the shift towards private care, it's imperative we keep the focus on clinical need and not entrepreneurial greed. Could money spent to high-tech equipment be better used on grassroots healthcare, on more nurses or better training?

With the pressures of practice, it is hard to remember that physicians should be clinicians first and businessmen second. As the medical market is squeezed by more competition, it's difficult to opt out of the race to be cutting-edge but hospitals need to prize function over high-tech form. Without a strong base of affordable, accessible healthcare, the UAE, both literally and figuratively could be building on sand.

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