x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Doctors say demographics present challenge to health system

Professionals say the large number of expatriates creates unique challenges for the healthcare system.

ABU DHABI // The large number of expatriates in the country creates unique challenges for the healthcare system, medical professionals said at the Abu Dhabi Medical Congress yesterday. "We are different to other countries because the number of expatriates is very high," said Dr Sadiaq Jawad, who presented a report by the disease prevention and screening centre at Seha, the company that manages government hospitals in Abu Dhabi.

Because the population comes from around the world, a wider range of risk can affect patients. Different genetic backgrounds, different diets and different cultural attitudes to health can alter a person's medical profile, she said. "The population served by the system is mostly expatriates and has been finely tuned to deal with the differences in communicable and non-communicable diseases." The population is generally younger than in other countries and there are many more men than women, Dr Jawad said, noting that 68.4 per cent are aged between 20 and 49.

Dr Jawad said the UAE population would reach 4.67 million next year and that the large variations of income in the country meant the healthcare system must respond to the needs of construction workers and chief executives alike. Dr Tawfiq Amin, a general practitioner at the Gulf Diagnostic Center, said expatriates had a big impact on how the healthcare system operates. One of the most important points to consider was that without such a large expatriate community, mandatory health insurance would not have been introduced, since Emiratis receive free health care under the constitution. "Health insurance companies are coming here and creating a lot of patients," he said. "We now have many, many more than we did 20 years ago. I think we should be building more government hospitals to deal with everyone."

The screening programme, a requirement of a residency visa, helps to control diseases brought into the country. It tests for diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV/Aids and syphilis. The number of people screened increase every year. In 2006, 605,465 were screened and the figure rose to 696,977 last year. This year more than 500, 000 people have already been screened, according to the Seha report. Doctors say there is also a risk of expatriates bringing in transferable diseases they are not screened for.

"They can often bring minor diseases into the country which they then spread. Construction workers live in very cramped housing and viruses are easily spread," Dr Amin said. "It creates more patients again." Dr Jawad took a positive view of the need to care for the health of so many expatriates. He said their presence helped the economy and that "managing expatriate health helps us manage the health of the population".

The Seha report was written by Dr Zainab Khazaal. * With additional reporting by Mitya Underwood amcmeans@thenational.ae