Patient is first in understanding between UAE and four Korean institutions.
Health treaty pays first dividend
The first Emirati patient being treated under a hospital service agreement between Abu Dhabi and South Korea returned to the UAE yesterday.
The patient, a 28-year-old man from Abu Dhabi, had damaged vocal cords. He travelled to South Korea a week ago today and was treated at Seoul National University Hospital.
"The patient's vocal cords were irritated from long-term intubation at a hospital in his home country," said Dr Tack-Kyun Kwon, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the hospital. "We first did an assessment of his condition and checked his vocal cord functions."
The man was given injections to provide support to vocal folds that lack bulk or mobility.
Although his condition has improved, he needs to return to South Korea in mid-February for surgery, Dr Kwon said. No further information on the man's medical history was made available.
The Health Authority-Abu Dhabi (Haad) signed a hospital service agreement with South Korea's ministry of health and welfare last month. It covers four South Korean institutions: Samsung Seoul Hospital, Seoul National University Hospital, Asan Medical Centre and Seoul St Mary's Hospital.
The health authority has more than 10 hospital agreements with other countries, including Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Thailand and Singapore.
Haad is considering sending a second patient to South Korea for a kidney transplant at Asan Medical Centre. The hospital will first review the feasibility of the operation.
Dr Jamal Al Kaabi, director of customer care and corporate communication at Haad, said the authority chose South Korea because of its "excellent healthcare system".
"Their research and medical facilities are well advanced," he said. "And they have shown us that they are completely committed to making our patients feel comfortable while bearing cultural sensitivities in mind, even to the degree that they will ensure patients receive halal food."
The main treatments that Emirati patients are expected to receive in South Korea are oncology, organ transplantation and treatment of chronic cardiovascular diseases, Dr Al Kaabi said.
"We will first go through a pilot phase in the next month involving two or three patients," he said. "We will monitor the progress and, depending on the feedback we receive, we will start to increase the number of patients."
Under the agreement, the four hospitals will bill Haad within six months of treatment. The authority will then pay in South Korean currency through the UAE embassy in Seoul within 45 days.
South Korea estimates that its economic benefits from the deal could reach US$52 million (Dh191m) a year.
There are several South Korean hospitals in the UAE, including the Samsung Medical Center and Wooridul Spine Centre in Dubai.
And though 12 foreign medical institutions are authorised to operate in Abu Dhabi under Haad jurisdiction, certain procedures still call for treatment abroad.
Abu Dhabi subsidises between 2,500 and 3,000 Emirati patient visits abroad annually. One-third of the patients are sent to Germany, followed by 22 per cent to the United Kingdom and 16 per cent to the United States. Malignant tumours, paediatric surgery and spinal surgery constitute the majority of procedures referred abroad.
According to the Economic Intelligence Unit, the UAE spends an estimated $2 billion a year sending patients abroad for treatment.
The unit's 2011 healthcare and pharmaceuticals report attributes this to "the absence of local expertise, expensive treatment and a general lack of confidence in medical facilities", adding that the UAE suffers from a shortage of healthcare professionals of all kinds.
Nearly 80 per cent of doctors and more than 90 per cent of nurses in the UAE are expatriates, the report estimates.
The World Health Statistics report published by the World Health Organisation this year showed that the UAE had 9,215 physicians in 2010, or 1.93 physicians for every 1,000 people. By comparison, Germany has 3.8 doctors for every 1,000 people.
Dr Al Kaabi said the agreements with South Korea and other countries could stretch beyond patient referrals to include medical training for Emiratis.