A lack of Emirati doctors and a dependency on foreign medics has contributed to a lack of trust between patients and doctors, experts said yesterday.
Although the quality of health care in the UAE is improving, the low number of nationals in the sector and high quantity of expatriate professionals - who often only stay for a limited time - does not allow patients or doctors to form a relationship, said Nigel Weale, chief executive of University Hospital Sharjah.
"There are a lot of expatriate doctors, which results in trust not being built up in the same way [as in other countries]," said Mr Weale.
While the UAE is addressing the need for more Emiratis to work as health professionals by introducing more postgraduate programmes, the situation will take years to improve.
"There is an issue when it comes to the size of the population," said Mr Weale. "We have a relatively small number of Emiratis."
At University Hospital Sharjah, which has a staff of 300, there is one UAE national doctor, a psychiatrist.
"It's going to take a very long time before the majority of doctors and nurses working in the UAE are Emirati," said Mr Weale.
In Abu Dhabi, only 8 to 10 per cent of doctors and nurses are Emirati, said Zaid Al Siksek, chief executive of the Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad). But the capital is keen to increase the presence of nationals in all areas of health care.
"If you were to throw a dart anywhere, wherever it lands, we need UAE nationals," said Mr Al Siksek.
More "human capital" is one of the main challenges the country, and entire Mena region, faces, he added. But it is a problem Haad has started to tackle.
"We are talking about creating a human capital eco-system, some of the parameters of which will include understanding the size of any problems and where the problems are," said Mr Al Siksek.
Further research must be carried out to discover all the factors that contribute to people's lack of trust in their healthcare providers, said Laila Al Jassmi, chief executive of the health policy and strategy sector at Dubai Health Authority.
"You can't say the lack of trust is because you don't have a good health system. You have to look at it from a different perspective," she said. "Sometimes, when you don't have access [to a doctor], you don't have trust."
A bad experience with one doctor could make some patients think that all medical professionals were the same, said Ms Al Jassmi, but many other reasons were also possible.
"Is it because we have an insufficient healthcare service? Do we not fulfil all the requirements being demanded by our consumers?" she asked. "Do we have certain services that are not available, which results in people seeking treatment abroad? Are healthcare professionals with certain skill sets not available?"
The only way to answer these questions was to thoroughly analyse the situation, she added.
International and local experts at the The Economist Healthcare in the Gulf conference in Dubai also addressed the importance of the private sector in helping to reduce the burden on government hospitals.
The need for the public to be aware that the onus was on them to maintain a healthy lifestyle was also addressed.
As far as the UAE is concerned, the health care system is on the right path, said Ms Al Jassmi.
"We are looking into all of these issues in order to build up trust. I cannot say that the trust is not there, but I can say that we need to build it up more."
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