x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ability to cope with increase in 'medical tourism' questioned

Healthcare professionals have expressed fears that the UAE does not have the infrastructure or staff to cope with a planned increase in "medical tourism".

DUBAI // Healthcare professionals have expressed fears that the UAE does not have the infrastructure or staff to cope with a planned increase in "medical tourism". The Ministry of Health plans to rate hospitals and doctors to allow patients from abroad to assess services before travelling to the UAE for treatment. It is also setting up a committee to focus on attracting medical tourists, in partnership with tourism authorities.

However, industry leaders at the Healthcare Travel Exhibition and Congress in Dubai yesterday said there were several barriers to the UAE becoming a prime destination for people seeking treatment. "We're full. I don't want any more patients," said Brian de Francesca, chief operating officer of Tawam Hospital in Al Ain. "When we're at capacity we don't look anywhere else." He said his hospital would focus on improving care for those in Abu Dhabi rather than attracting people from overseas. The Ministry of Health and Seha, the medical service provider for Abu Dhabi, have both added beds in the past year.

Mr de Francesca said high operating costs would also hinder competitiveness with established "medical tourism" destinations such as Thailand and India. "When a significant majority of your labour is expatriate, you'll always have an expensive labour market. Where is the UAE going to be competitive?" The government and private organisations are pouring money into the medical sector to bring it up to world-class standards. But Mr de Francesca said that could only go so far.

"Five years from now the UAE will have the most magnificent hospitals, but who will be working in them? "It costs Dh400,000 (US$109,000) a year for a rock-star radiologist. There is no way we could pay Dh400,000 or even Dh250,000. Internationally, the best ones go to the US to work." Curtis Schroeder, group chief executive of Bumrungrad Hospital in Dubai. told the conference that labour costs would always hurt the UAE's competitiveness.

"Asia and Eastern Europe will always be cheaper," he said, adding that expatriate workers also required additional expenses such as housing and air transport. The Government acknowledges that there is a lack of Emiratis in the medical field and is trying to bring people into the profession. In addition to attracting people from abroad, it would encourage Emiratis not to seek health care elsewhere. At the moment, more nationals get treatment abroad than people travel here as medical tourists.

The country has some advantages, Mr Schroeder said, noting the existing tourism infrastructure and tax-free environment. amcmeans@thenational.ae