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Wed 15 Oct 2008 06:35 PM

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Privatisation spells end for public sector

The privatisation of healthcare services is nothing new in the Middle East but in recent weeks there’s been another flurry of activity supporting the rise of private investment in two of the region’s wealthiest countries.

The privatisation of healthcare services is nothing new in the Middle East but in recent weeks there’s been another flurry of activity supporting the rise of private investment in two of the region’s wealthiest countries.

What’s prompted these latest pronouncements by Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi to privatise large swaths of government-run facilities and services is unclear. But it sounds suspiciously like the clanging of the death-knell for publicly funded healthcare.

Both these governments are facing a tidal wave of healthcare demands in the wake of expanding populations, growing numbers of chronically sick and higher expectations from increasingly wealthy and knowledgeable patient groups.

All this represents a financial time-bomb for governments such as Saudi Arabia that still finances three-quarters of its country’s healthcare facilities and services. A situation it simply can not afford to let continue.

Saudi has obviously realised, as the US and the UK did eight years ago, that it needs the private sector to step in. This is a road the United Arab Emirates went down four years ago when Abu Dhabi began outsourcing the management of its public hospitals to big-name private healthcare providers from the US and Thailand.

Other emirates followed on a smaller scale. Now Abu Dhabi plans to step up private sector involvement further recently asking companies to bid for contracts to run hospitals, home-based services and even provide mental health care – all areas woefully under provided for at present.

There’s no question that improvements in primary and secondary care in the region is urgently needed. However, both governments and the public must understand that once private companies move in there’s no way back to a welfare-funded system.

The UK knows all too well that when the balance tips in favour of the private sector it’s impossible to tip it back again. People see what’s on offer; they are exposed to a higher quality of treatment and care – there are no waiting times and always a private room - of course they don’t want second-rate care ever again.

A tax-funded system is the only other option, but in a region that has no experience of this it is hard to say whether the public would support such as move. All that is certain is that people are always prepared to put their hands in their pockets to pay for the best healthcare has to offer.

Joanna Hartley is the editor of Medical Times Middle East.

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