By Edward Poultney
The CEO of DHCC explains to Edward Poultney why the group’s standards are what will set it apart from the competition and why a woman’s place is in the boardroom.
Although our interview is the last appointment of her day, Dr Muhadditha Al Hashimi is all smiles as she offers me a seat and orders refreshments before settling down herself. The CEO of Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) exudes an air of quiet control as she looks out through the wide glass doors of the conference room across the first floor of her kingdom before explaining the concept behind it.
"This is a very ambitious project," she begins, "there's a need in this region to address the quality of healthcare. Our objective is to raise the bar in the region and to gain patient trust."
Established as Government of Dubai initiative to create a regional centre for medical services and life science research and development, DHCC, the first medical Free Zone in the world, has attracted institutions from across the globe to come and set up in the Emirate.
The onus, as Al Hashimi explains, is on filling the current gap in healthcare provisions.
"Usually, anyone with the smallest little health problem gets on the next flight out, so really our goal is to create here that environment that people feel the need to seek outside," she explains frankly. "We want Dubai to become a medical hub as much as it is a tourist destination."
As one of the first in her family to go on to higher education, Al Hashimi is used to pushing the boundaries. Having been granted a government scholarship to study abroad in the 1980s, she completed her Bachelor's, Master's and PhD in the USA.
She credits these cultural and professional experiences, alongside her impressive academic background, with helping her set high standards for her own company.
"When I started my education in the US in the 1980s it was a culture shock.
"I'd never been outside the UAE, my English was not that great, so I had to learn and adapt - but coming back here was another culture shock," she laughs.
"I'd been gone for 14 years, the US became my home, obviously I was back for holidays but living here again is very different, but again, you adapt."
This ability to embrace change is one that has come in useful in her appointment as the country's first female head of a healthcare corporation.
While acknowledging that her appointmant may have raised a few corporate eyebrows, Al Hashimi is unfazed by the challenges of being in the spotlight.
"This position was vacant for many years, so when I assumed the position, and being a female, I'm sure that it caused a stir in the community," she admits. "It was a groundbreaking appointment.
"But if you look at my credentials or come and talk to me you'll see that we will commit - regardless of my being female or not - we will commit and we are going to deliver on this project," she emphasises.
Al Hashimi is, however, quick to dismiss any talk of her gender having affected her professional life in either a positive or a negative manner, insisting that ability and results are what people base their judgement on.
"I manage to disperse any misconceptions from the very first meeting; being female doesn't matter, it's what you are able to achieve regardless of your gender." A statement that is given increased weight by the surge of female graduates entering the field of medicine.
"If you talk about physicians, in the UAE 70% of our graduates are women," she explains with a twinkle.
"Which shows that they are able to cope with our entry requirements, if you look at the grade percentile in high school it is mainly girls who are achieving in the 90% and higher and those are the students who are eligible for medical school and scholarships.
"It's part of a global trend," she adds, laughing, "we do have smarter girls than boys - maybe the boys are distracted by other things!"
All levity aside, Al Hashimi is very serious about the standards that she expects from her staff and requires from organisations and medical practitioners wanting to become part of DHCC. The group demands similar professional credentials for physicians as those currently employed in Western healthcare systems, and the same applies to building and hygiene standards for the clinics wishing to be part of the facility.
"We look at European guidelines for building the hospitals and clinics from the ventilation system to the patient floors in the facility," she says.
Al Hashimi is quick to underline that this is what is setting DHCC apart from the competition.
"Our standards are a unique concept over here. There are a lot of hospitals outside the facility, they are mushrooming all over the place, but many of them don't go through the rigid process that we put our people through to ensure quality."
"The quality of healthcare is only as good as the person giving the diagnosis, if your physician has the best credentials then the service will be the best," she explains.
"We have very stringent requirements and we're very proud to say that many people did not get licensed by DHCC because they failed to meet our standards."
The second major differentiation between DHCC and the other regional healthcare projects is the emphasis being placed on teaching, something dear to Al Hashimi's own heart - she was Dean of the Health Sciences programme at the Dubai Higher College of Technology prior to joining DHCC.
"We are not offering an undergraduate degree because there is no need, there are four institutions that offer it, but we are addressing postgraduate education," she says.
"Our intention is to attract these trainees to come and work at DHCC and the wider region as well, so that they don't feel that they have to leave the country to pursue their schooling."
The concept of education is one that Al Hashimi embraces personally and she firmly believes that the learning process continues throughout a company head's professional development.
"For the first nine months following my appointment I was very ‘hands on' because I needed to be," she says, "I needed to know the business; it was about the challenges of the role and the responsibility the position entailed."
"Now I can become more ‘hands off' very easily," she continues.
"My senior leadership team is quite empowered. They are in their positions because I've trusted them to become directors of those sectors. I want them to use their judgement to the best of their ability."
Keeping in touch with ground level developments is also very important to Al Hashimi and, fittingly, her executive style mixes medicine with management.
"I have a daily routine which I follow as much as possible, which is that I do my ‘rounds'," she says.
"Physicians do this on a daily basis where they check up on their patients and I have tried to bring this into healthcare administration too.
"I walk around the organisation, stop by and see what staff are working on, see if there is anything I can do to help and things like that."
"I want there to be complete transparency at all levels, the way that we have designed the offices with glass doors everywhere is a reflection of this open door policy," she adds.
The pastoral support strategy extends to succession and career planning for DHCC employees.
"When you are in a position like this you are now told that you have to find your successor," Al Hashimi says.
"You have to make sure that the next level are equipped to take on new responsibility, people are competing for roles through their credentials and training and you have to help them attain this."
Al Hashimi's policy of constant support for those around her is something that she learnt from her father, the person that she sites as her primary personal role model when she was growing up and intent on pursuing her career.
"He is the person that I look up to for inspiration, he has always been supportive," she says.
"When I graduated from high school in the 1980s, I went against all odds to go to the US.
"He was a firm supporter through all the challenges you face by going to a new country; even the times when I thought I couldn't do it and wanted to come back he would say to me ‘if you want to come back it's fine, but remember your future'.
"I think he is the main force behind my achievements," she smiles.
Forging ahead despite the odds is a lesson that Al Hashimi has taken on board.
"I think that the reason behind my success is that I never gave up - I reached for my goal, and then I set another and tried to reach that," she says proudly. "If you are determined you will do it, I am a strong believer in that."
When applied to DHCC Al Hashimi is confident that the strategy of ever-expanding goals is one which will return impressive dividends. In the next five years she sees the group having a much wider presence.
"Hopefully we will have rapidly expanded outside the region, with franchises perhaps," she says.
"My ambition is for DHCC to be in the Gulf, in India, in different areas - I want to duplicate our experience here."
And, as the first phase of DHCC's establishment nears completion and with the strategies in place to nurture the brand, these projected goals do not seem so far out of reach.