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Thu 14 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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UAE care too top-end for tourism

The United Arab Emirates' healthcare industry is currently pricing itself out of the medical tourism market with high-end expansion plans, an industry expert has warned.

The United Arab Emirates' healthcare industry is currently pricing itself out of the medical tourism market with high-end expansion plans, an industry expert has warned.

Guy Ellena, director of the health and education department at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group, said regional facilities banking on enticing health tourists are set to be disappointed.

"What we see in the Middle East are top-end developments being targeted to the Middle East's wealthy population," he said.

That's not medical tourism in the true sense of the term. There is not enough of a comparative advantage in this region to attract people from other parts of the world because the main constraint is cost."

Speaking on the sidelines of a signing between IFC and Magrabi Hospitals, to assist the group's expansion in the Middle East, Ellena suggested more profitable returns would come from niche investment in developing regions, such as Yemen.

"The next wave is interregional investment from liquid countries," he said. "[Yemen's] population is increasingly willing to pay for quality healthcare services and partnerships are being built between the private and public sectors," he said.

We expect the Ministry of Health will subsidise health services for a number of people. The return will be there.

His comments will be of concern to facilities such as Dubai Healthcare City, where CEO Dr Muhadditha Al Hashimi has been open about her ambitions to corner 20% of the regional health tourism market. In reality, Ellena suggested, the region is unlikely to challenge established - and cheaper - destinations such as Singapore and India.

"Nearly every government believes that medical tourism will make a change to their country," he said, "It will follow the rules of the market - cost. Countries as expensive as the high-quality hospitals in the home regions will not benefit.

IFC has committed US$136 million to health projects in the MENA region in the last 12 months, but has largely steered clear of established markets such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Instead, the corporation has backed tie-ups in Egypt, Yemen and Sudan with firms including the Saudi German Hospital Group, and Magrabi Hospitals & Centres. According to Ellena, the investments are set to capitalise on a future model of care that will see specialised hospitals in underdeveloped economies flourish.

"We'll see a lot less of the type of hospitals that do everything," he predicts. "It will be easier for companies that are in one line of business. Each hospital should undertake the same management exercise and ask; ‘what are we good at?' because healthcare is changing - it's not a local, domestic industry anymore."

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