ABU DHABI // Most Emiratis are satisfied with health care in the UAE but almost two in five still prefer to be treated abroad.
In a Gallup survey of more than 4,000 GCC nationals, the UAE came second after Qatar with 87 per cent saying they were content with the availability of quality health care. That is more than the United States, with 73 per cent, but less than the United Kingdom's 92 per cent.
Forty-one per cent of Emiratis said they were happy to be treated in the UAE, and 39 per cent would rather go abroad. The remaining 20 per cent had no preference.
Earlier surveys have repeatedly shown a lack of faith in the country's health care. A 2009 survey for The National by YouGov found that more than half of Emiratis would seek treatment abroad.
Experts attribute the improvement to developments in the past decade. In Abu Dhabi, for example, 98 per cent of residents have health insurance since it was required by law in 2006.
Bringing renowned doctors, hospitals and medical centres to the UAE has also helped.
"A lot of things are becoming available locally, and I believe the number of Emiratis travelling abroad for treatment will drastically reduce in the next five years. Doctors are now coming to the patient's doorsteps," said Dr Sanjiv Malek, executive director of DM Healthcare, which manages Medcare Hospital in Dubai.
Dr Ali Obaid Al Ali, director of health regulation at the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, said collaboration with international brands such as Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic had made quality health care more accessible.
"Such initiatives bring the most sought-after brands to the patient rather than the patient having to travel abroad for these services," he said.
"This also attracts good physicians who have the knowledge in the various specialities needed in the emirate and helps to transfer all that knowledge to the community, which plays an important role in developing local talent."
Figures from the authority show that the number of Emiratis it sends abroad for treatment has dropped by nearly half in the past year, from 2,858 in 2010 to 1,451 in 2011.
Oncology was at the forefront of referrals abroad, accounting for slightly more than 120 cases, followed by orthopaedic surgery, with 80.
Cases sponsored by the Ministry of Health (which is responsible for health care in Dubai and the Northern Emirates) have also dropped notably, from 219 in 2010 to 138 last year.
Nevertheless, figures from the International Medical Travel Journal show that nearly 30,000 Emiratis a year travel abroad for treatment and spend US$250,000 (Dh918,000) per visit.
Several factors are involved, including a lack of knowledge of treatment available locally and gaps in service.
In Abu Dhabi, staffing remains a serious challenge in improving and raising the quality of health care.
"The global shortage of healthcare professionals and the tough competition make it difficult to attract the right calibre to the country," Dr Al Ali said.
Doctors who work in their home countries have a reputation to maintain, creating a sense of continuity that plays a crucial role in the provision of quality health care, he said. However, that is not so prevalent in Abu Dhabi, as many doctors are expatriates practising in the country temporarily.
"To resolve this and to lower dependency on foreign human capital the health authority is working on nurturing our own home-grown health professionals," Dr Al Ali said. "This will improve the medical outcomes and the quality of care and in return restore trust in the system."
The authority's stringent data collection works as a "backbone" to its decision-making process, Dr Al Ali said. "We encourage investors and providers to expand their services to cover some of the mentioned areas."
Establishing a dedicated centre or bringing a sub-specialty to the emirate depends on demand and feasibility. "For example, in certain rare conditions, it may be more feasible to send the patient abroad rather than invest in establishing a centre or bringing in relevant professionals for the long haul."
Dr Easa Al Mansoori, director of international organisations and foreign relations at the Ministry of Health, said investing was not always the best solution.
"We don't have a big population like the US and the UK, and sometimes it's not practical to open a clinic for just a few cases," he said.
"Some people also like to travel and simply decide to get medical treatment while they are away. But our services have improved."
With the help of the health authority's Thiqa insurance scheme, UAE nationals were finding it easier to obtain access to health care, he said. "This is evident in the numbers."