Health retreats and medical tourism have become big business around the world, with places such as South Africa, Eastern Europe and Thailand enjoying a lucrative trade providing treatments and services. Now one resort in Dubai is trying to find a place for itself in a market expected to generate more than US$1.6 billion (Dh5.88bn) in Dubai by the end of this year.
Talise Spa at Al Qasr Hotel has just hired Dr Elisabeth Makk, an internal medicine specialist and cardiologist, to oversee Talise Spa Wellness Experiences. She is offering personal health assessments for hotel guests, visitors and local residents.
So far, around 70 per cent of those coming to the facility are from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, both Emiratis and expatriates. They come for routine health checks, for preventative medicine and for blood tests to look at areas such as liver and kidney function, as well as for help with weight loss. The spa, which is approved by both the Ministry of Health and the Dubai Health Authority, will soon be offering more tailored one- and two-week packages as well as weekend breaks.
Patients are looking for something different, says Makk. "People are sick of being prescribed drugs all the time, whether it's painkillers, antidepressants or antibiotics," she says. "People want help with making lifestyle changes and natural therapies. You can instead give probiotics, herbal teas. There are alternatives."
Makk combines conventional medicine with alternative therapies, from destress massage to herbal supplements, and patients come back regularly to be monitored. "People feel better knowing they can come back and someone is there to help," says Dr Makk.
Each patient has an individually designed programme, whether it be for dietary changes or exercise. "If a person tells me they hate running, I am not going to tell them to go and run for 20 minutes each day," says Makk.
For those staying at the five-star resort on holiday, there is no excuse not to get active. Facilities include the country's first high-altitude chamber, used for high-intensity training or preparations for high-altitude climbs, as well as state-of-the-art gyms, lap pools and a climbing wall.
Wellness holidays may be relatively new to the UAE, but Karina Stewart, a co-founder of Kamalaya, a wellness retreat with its own in-house doctor on the Thai island of Koh Samui, says they have boomed in Thailand in recent years.
"There has been, and continues to be, a shift in attitudes to holidays. These days, as life seems to be speeding up and getting more stressful, many people are realising they need to invest in their health and work-life balance," she says. "It is no longer enough to escape the pressure, distractions and demands of life. Many people are looking for holidays that can help them to improve their health and the way they experience life."
At the retreat, which opened in 2005, 45 per cent of its clientele focus on detoxification packages, 22 per cent on stress and burnout packages and 10 per cent on ideal-weight programmes.
But Dr Hassan Galadari, an assistant professor in the medical school at UAE University, says such approaches to health are not without pitfalls. "It can be a Pandora's box," he says. He says the patient becomes a "consumer", and if they go on holiday seeking treatments, there is no continuity of care nor can there be consistency in monitoring conditions for people whose stay in a country is brief.
"My main concern is that they order a hoard of blood tests but a lot of them are completely unnecessary, done only for commercial reasons," he says. "What are you going to do with these tests, that might show things like high sodium levels? For some people, these results can be normal and do not mean it is dangerous."
Gail Clough, the founder of www.dubaisurgery.com, has been bringing patients from the UK and around the GCC to Dubai for cosmetic surgery for the past eight years. She says the combination of the city's luxury hotels and its reputation for high-tech, clean hospitals has made it a popular destination for both men and women seeking treatments from facelifts to liposuction. Patients get consultations, surgery and follow-ups during their two-week stay from Ministry of Health-accredited surgeons. "I have to have seen dozens of their procedures before they go on my books," Clough says. "Ministry accreditation is the least I demand. They have to be brilliant at what they do."
She says price is not an issue: those coming want to pay more for what they see as higher-quality treatment than the alternatives in Thailand, South Africa and the Eastern Bloc countries. "Even when the recession hit, it was bolstered by the fact that men had been starting to take to surgery," she says. "It took the blow away from the recession."