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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

UAE medics frustrated as some patients treat wheelchairs like 'brand new cars'

The country's health ministry spends millions every year in equipment for people with disabilities

Dr Rida Baruni, chair of the Department for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. Victor Besa / The National 
Dr Rida Baruni, chair of the Department for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City. Victor Besa / The National 

Wheelchair users in the UAE need to be aware of the significant cost of the equipment and not take them for granted, medical staff have said.

Doctors said the attitude of some disabled patients was overly demanding, with many insisting on the latest models even if unsuitable to their needs.

Under the Emirate’s healthcare insurance system, wheelchairs are issued to those who require them free of charge.

But experts said some users had a tendency to treat them like cars, always demanding the latest model despite their substantial cost.

The call comes after it was revealed that hospitals in Abu Dhabi are handing out prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs worth millions of dirhams to patients every month as they tackle increasingly complex medical needs.

“Patients assume that wheelchairs are like brand new cars,” said Dr Rida Baruni, a medic from Sheikh Khalifa Medical City (SKMC), a leading healthcare provider in Abu Dhabi.

“They continue to argue with us and demand the latest model, style and colour. There needs to be more awareness.”

SKMC issues up to 50 new wheelchairs and 15 artificial limbs to patients every month.

Although exact figures are unavailable, it is understood the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention spends millions of dirhams a year in funding for patients with disabilities.

Authorities in Dubai and Abu Dhabi have also worked hard to improve access to public transport and leisure facilities such as cinemas for wheelchair users.

Under the Thiqa insurance scheme, the UAE’s health insurance programme for Emiratis, wheelchair users can have the cost of their equipment paid for.

SKMC said it issues up to 50 new wheelchairs and 15 prosthetic limbs per month. In some cases, the wheelchairs cost more than Dh100,000 each.

Speaking to The National, Dr Baruni, Chair of the Department for Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at SKMC, said he wanted some patients to be more aware of the cost of their wheelchairs.

He also stressed that the equipment could only been issued once medics had identified the best possible model for the patient concerned.

“What I say to my team is please remind patients that when you go to see a cardiologist and they give you a prescription, you don’t debate what medication you want or what dose.

“It is exactly the same case here. It’s not about giving the patient any device, it’s about knowing what their needs are clinically and how they will be able to use it.

“It also depends on the age and lifestyle of the patient. If he needs a wheelchair to go to and from the mosque then they don’t need something as sophisticated patients who, for instance, wants to play volleyball.

“So the assessment is also about whether (the patient) has the cognitive ability and insight to operate such a device, be it a machine or an artificial leg.

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“We go into a lot details and is why I emphasise the point that this is a medical prescription.

“If we are talking about a basic wheelchair the cost could be around Dh5,000 but a more sophisticated customised wheelchair could cost more than Dh100,000.

“It is a very dynamic process that involves a lot of clinical knowledge, background and ability to communicate well with the clients.”

Dr Baruni revealed the SKMC currently saw hundreds of patients a month who needed specialist equipment to assist with their mobility.

A high number suffer from diabetes, with research this year suggesting that nearly one if five people living in the UAE have the disease.

“But we see a variety of patients including those with spinal cord injuries, genetic diseases, multiple sclerosis and so on,” said Dr Baruni.

He added: “The government is very generous in making these devices readily available to the people.

“Durable medical equipment and rehab technology is very expensive and adds to the huge costs of healthcare.”

But patients say that despite putting in requests for wheelchairs, they can often wait months for them to arrive.

Reem, 24, an Emirati student with spina bifida, a condition of the spine that means she can’t move her legs, said she had to wait for a year to get a wheelchair.

"Waiting for a year for a wheelchair was a nightmare but while I'm grateful that I have one now. It is too bulky and heavy. I need a lighter one to fold up into the car and reassemble."

While the Emirati insurance scheme Thiqa covers wheelchairs and Emiratis are eligible to replace them every two to three years, wheelchair lifts and boot hoists are not covered.

"It is very difficult to carry it into and out of the car. My parents had to carry me first and then the wheelchair."

Meanwhile, Musaed Al Mansoori, 25, who was paralysed from the hip down after contracting polio, is expecting a new model next month. He has had his current chair for three years and said it is worn down.

"I don't care about it being electric or the latest model. My wheelchair is a basic manual one and it is perfect because it is light and small so I can fit it in my car. It is hard to fit an electric wheelchair in a small car."

Dr Baruni said: “We dealt with that and haven’t had complaints on time of delivery as of late because we worked hard and refined our processes and worked with our approved vendors. We spoke to these vendors and told them that we could not have a waiting of six months or even three months,” Dr Baruni said.

"We used to get several complaints per week and now we don’t get that. Most of the complaints we get now are from patients demanding a certain colour or specifications.”

There currently is no process of recycling these medical devices. “We ask our patients to donate them and in some instances people will just drop it off at the hospital but we don’t encourage that because it causes a problem with storage.”