CEO Middle East looks at the UAE's drive to become the Gulf region's medical destination of choice.
The number of tourists visiting the UAE for medical procedures is set to rise, as the nation develops the infrastructure required for health tourism, according to the UAE Ministry of Health.
Globally, health tourism is estimated to be worth $50bn annually, with a range of developing nations spearheading a trend of offering cheap healthcare to foreign visitors.
Nasser Khalifa Al-Budoor, assistant undersecretary for International Relations and Health Affairs at the UAE Ministry of Health, said the UAE will soon start receiving medical tourists and their families for plastic surgeries, knee replacements or cardiovascular disease care.
Crackdown on illegal clinics
The health tourism announcement follows a crackdown earlier this year by the Ministry of Health on illegal clinics and uncertified doctors, particularly cosmetic surgeons, in a bid to regulate the health industry.
Dr Ali Al-Numairy, president of the Emirates Medical Association, told CEO Middle East he believed less than ten clinics have been shut down since the Ministry's reforms were introduced.
"Less than ten may not sound like much, but it is a lot given the short space of time. Over the past five or so years, a parallel market trading in illegal medical procedures has been operating in Dubai and the government is getting rid of this."
Al-Numairy said the parallel market involved illegal clinics operating without registration and certification or doctors performing cheap procedures in non-sterile locations including hotel rooms. "Often the results of these illegal procedures are often catastrophic," he said.
The ministry's tougher reforms included spot checks, with health inspectors authorised to issue warnings, fines, revoke licences and shut down facilities.
The move followed the death of a 27-year-old Emirati woman, who died after undergoing liposuction. Seven people, including a plastic surgeon and four nurses, are accused of malpractice regarding the case.
Al-Budoor said in the past the Middle East would "never have been considered a destination for medical tourists", but the situation in the UAE had completely changed.
"We have so many hospitals, with John Hopkins, Harvard, some of the biggest names in the world are here doing work. People would go to London for shopping with their families and receive a check up or undergo a small operation. "Now Dubai is ready for this. We have so much to offer now, with certified hospitals from international agencies," he said.
However, Al-Numairy said the UAE has been attracting medical tourists for years. "Health tourism is not a new idea. It has been a big part of Dubai's vision - that's why they developed the Healthcare City. Dubai has already become a hub for medical tourism throughout this region, as tourists come here for quality healthcare services."
Demand for healthcare is expected to surge by 240 percent over the next 20 years in the GCC, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE expected to record the greatest demand. Growth is expected to be sparked by dramatic increases in cardiovascular disease and diabetes-related ailments, according to global consultancy firm McKinsey.
Their survey said that by 2025 demand for hospital beds will more than double in the region, requiring almost 162,000 beds.Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are expected to register the greatest percentage increase in demand.
Spending on the treatment of cardiovascular disease, which now accounts for twelve percent of the total, will double and grow at almost twice the overall rate of healthcare spending during the period, the survey found.
Despite substantial investments by the GCC governments in medical education over the past 25 years, healthcare systems are still struggling as governments are not equipped to manage healthcare providers.
Unscrupulous practice abroad
In 2007, concerns were raised that unscrupulous doctors were ripping off UAE health tourists by making them undergo unnecessary and expensive treatments.
Klaus Kallmayer, chairman of the German Heart Centre (GHC) in Dubai, said many residents that go aboard for medical treatment are wrongly diagnosed and advised to have invasive procedures done.
"In our experience it appears many hospitals are carrying out the maximum number of high-tech examinations within a short period of time, sometimes without a clear medical indication," Kallmayer said in a statement. "Many of the patients [that come back from having treatment aboard] are seeking out our help as they do not understand the results of their foreign examinations, which have not been clearly explained to them."
Kallmayer also said patients could be putting themselves at risk by flying to the places like Southeast Asia and Europe for treatment.
"When it comes to serious medical disorders, especially those that can deteriorate into an acute illness or life-threatening emergency, flying abroad can quickly turn into a menace," he said.
"From experience, many Emiratis believe that, even in the case of an emergency, they can fly out to Thailand or Europe and undergo treatment there. This is a deadly misconception."
Kallmayer's comments come in response to a report earlier by a leading newspaper that almost 70,000 Emiratis travelled to Thailand for medical treatment last year, an increase of over 40 percent from 2005.
UAE ambassador to Thailand Salim Al Za'abi told the newspaper that the reason for the dramatic rise was distrust and dissatisfaction with the UAE healthcare system.
Kallmayer defended the UAE healthcare system, but admitted not all medical providers are up to standard, calling on those that are not to "leave the market".
Kallmayer also called on the government to discourage health tourism by setting minimum standards for medical insurance and by monitoring the performance of medical providers, stating that it has a negative impact on the UAE healthcare market.
"Medical tourism has a negative impact on the quality of medical care, both for an individual and on a national level, and should be discouraged by the government," he said. The DCCI said the UAE healthcare market is set to grow to $11.9bn by 2015, up from $3.2bn in 2005.For all the latest health tips & news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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