x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Abu Dhabi to increase doctor numbers by 40%

There are only 16 physicians per 10,000 people in the emirate, with severe shortages in emergency care, neonatal care, cardiology, and critical and intensive care.

ABU DHABI // Plans to increase the number of doctors in the emirate by more than 40 per cent in the next five years will alleviate severe capacity gaps, according to senior health officials.

Figures from the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad) show that there are only 16 physicians per 10,000 people in the emirate, with severe shortages in emergency care, neonatal care, cardiology and critical and intensive care.

Haad plans to increase that ratio to 23 per 10,000 over the next five years, with Emiratis constituting at least a quarter of the total. UAE nationals currently make up 10 per cent of all physicians in Abu Dhabi.

The new target is higher than the national average of 19 doctors per 10,000 population, but still less than rates at popular medical destinations such as the US and Germany, where there are 27 and 35 doctors per 10,000 respectively.

Dr Hatem Al Ameri, head of postgraduate education at Haad, said that reaching the goal may prove challenging, especially given the emirate's transient population.

"It's a continuous process of supply and demand," he said. "It's so dynamic that I don't think we can definitely say we're going to reach that."

The health authority estimates that by 2020, Abu Dhabi will require 3,100 additional doctors across all fields. However if turnover remains at its current rate, 1,400 doctors will need to be recruited annually. In 2010, there were just 875 clinicians licensed in the emirate.

Dr Al Ameri partially attributed the gaps to "wastage" in the workforce.

"A majority of the workforce is depending on an immigrant population so the doctor himself may leave to return home," he said.

Not only are foreign doctors apt to leave, he said, but while in the Emirates they tend to switch jobs. "The population is always seeking [better] opportunities," Dr Al Ameri said. "So we have wastage and turnover."

The average salary for an expatriate specialist at a government hospital is about Dh50,000 a month, slightly lower than in the US. For a specialist working at a private hospital in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, salaries can reach Dh100,000.

Melissa Kostler is a health-care consultant at Hays, a recruiting agency that specialises in health care and has offices in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. She said salary depends on several factors, including nationality, education, experience, demand for the speciality and the emirate in which the doctor is hired. As a rule, doctors in Abu Dhabi earn at least 5 per cent more than those in Dubai.

"When you take the tax bracket into account, salaries are generally the same as the UK and the US," Ms Kostler said.

The most significant problem encountered by hospitals is in the licensing process.

"Time is our worst enemy," Ms Kostler said. "Licensing can take anywhere from three months to a year and a half. And during that time life happens. The candidate's circumstances can change. Most of the challenge lies in getting documents verified and certificates attested in the candidate's home countries."

Hospitals also expressed the same frustration with recruitment, urging health officials to take action to speed up the process. "Something that should only take a couple of weeks takes us from two to six months," said Dr Nabil Debouni, medical director at Lifeline Hospital. "It's a long and tedious process, and is very exhausting."

Dr Pietie Loubser, chief clinical officer at Emirates Healthcare Limited, recommended that licensing requirements be made uniform. "There are too many regulatory bodies," he said. "Each authority, whether it's Haad, the [Dubai Health Authority] or the Ministry [of Health], has its own licensing procedures.

"It would be more efficient if regulations were consolidated, simplified and standardised across the country."

Authorities have recognised that the system is slow and are taking measures to alleviate it.

Last year, the Dubai Health Authority (DHA) launched Sheryan, an electronic licensing system that allows health-care professionals to apply online. The system has helped cut the registration time to between three and six weeks.

In Dubai, the number of physicians is higher, with 25 doctors per 10,000 people. Nearly a third of doctors at DHA hospitals are Emirati.

Supply is only one side of the coin, Dr Al Ameri said, and patient perception is the other. "We have patient education itself that needs to be improved," he said. "He always wants to go to a specialist, when his problem could be taken care of by a general practitioner. We need to emphasise that the GP is always the first line of care."

mismail@thenational.ae