x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Treatment for tourists part of new plan

The Ministry of Health will establish a committee to focus specifically on attracting medical tourists.

The City Hospital at Dubai Health Care City.
The City Hospital at Dubai Health Care City.

Alongside the launch of a new website to rate hospitals according to treatments and facilities, the Ministry of Health will also establish a committee to focus specifically on attracting medical tourists. The committee, which will include members from the Health Authority Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Health Authority, will work with tourism authorities to formulate a strategy to break into the market and promote the UAE as a luxurious location with world-class doctors, sun and shopping where patients can recuperate on the beach. However, many residents are still seeking medical treatment outside the UAE citing a greater trust in the expertise of doctors abroad. Up to 40 Emiratis a day travel to Singapore for medical treatment, said Edward Oh, the business development director for SingHealth, a public healthcare provider in Singapore. The Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand treats 66,000 Emiratis every year. This summer, Ismail travelled from his home in Abu Dhabi to the United States to have his heart checked at the Mayo Clinic. His father received cancer treatment in Singapore and his daughter made her annual trip to Florida for diabetes treatment. Although the journey was long and the treatment was expensive, Ismail, who wanted to use only his first name, said the cost was outweighed by the benefits. "The reputation and the quality of services made it worthwhile. [The Mayo Clinic] is one of the best clinics in the world." For serious procedures, he said, his only choice was to travel overseas. "In the United States there is accountability. If you want a second opinion they will let you take it, and even advise it. Here the accountability is not clear. Checks and balances on doctors are still not the norm." Despite his choice, Ismail said the moves to attract new patients will encourage hospitals and clinics to become more transparent. "It is improving, but to work on the checks and balances will take time," he said. "We need to put systems in place. I think the trend for leaving the country will go down when people are confident that the system available is as good as the international standard. "When the facilities, the doctors, the support systems and everything is installed and running, then maybe we can reach that." The new committee is intended to set up target-driven marketing campaigns and hopes to start a magazine for medical tourists who mostly travel for heart surgery, knee or hip replacements, cosmetic surgery and dental care. Nasser al Budoor, from the Ministry of Health, said hospitals would become more like luxury hotels, offering visitors shopping centres, coffee shops, spa treatments and entertainment. "Families won't come straight just for the medical treatment. They will come for the shopping, for entertainment, to stay in a good hotel. All of these together will attract medical tourism," he said. "People from Europe go to Thailand because it is cheaper. We are looking for quality and flexible prices. Here we have the balance. We have the top treatment, we already have agreement with top hospitals in the UAE. We are hoping soon to have more qualified people, more hospitals. The infrastructure is ready." The medical tourism market will be discussed at the three-day Healthcare Travel and Exhibition Congress, starting today in Dubai. Ayana Everett, the conference's organiser, said the UAE and other countries hope to emulate the success of places such as Singapore. In 2006, about 410,000 patients travelled there for treatment. "Going abroad for procedures is taking off and countries like Jordan and Lebanon are already benefiting," she said. "With a population predominantly made up of expatriates, the UAE has always been a major market for the medical travel business." A knock-on effect could be a reduction in the number of Emiratis seeking medical treatment abroad. "People who search for health care beyond their borders usually want a combination of health care, access and price," said Curtis Schroeder, chief executive of Bumrungrad International Hospital. Dr Haidar al Yousuf, director of the transition team at Dubai Health Authority, said the city was ready to compete for a share of the medical travel market. "We have captured the top names and healthcare brands in Dubai," he said. "There is a lot of work in Dubai Healthcare City. It is government policy to attract brand names by providing support from the government." The Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins, Cleveland Clinic, the Imperial College of London and Harvard University have already invested. However, some believe breaking into the tourism market will not be easy. "Medical tourism is a buzzword all over the world," said Daine Meintjes, the chief executive of EHL Management Services, which manages the City Hospital in Dubai Healthcare City. "Our view is realistic. I do not think we can compete on price with good hospitals in India or Thailand. Cost structures are different in Dubai." amcmeans@thenational.ae