The fast pace of economic growth in the UAE is prompting healthcare providers to hire doctors from their local rivals rather than from abroad, leading to a recruitment squeeze in the sector.
UAE shortage of healthcare workers fuels poaching and cost increases
A hospital recruitment squeeze is forcing hospitals to poach staff from rivals amid rising demand for thousands of additional doctors.
As more hospitals and specialist clinics open across the country, greater numbers of operators are having to source from the local market instead of hiring from abroad.
Hospital operators attending a recent investment summit in Dubai complained about the rising cost of recruiting doctors and healthcare staff, and called for a reform of the regulatory framework to address the problem.
The number of physicians in the UAE is 1.5 per 1,000 people, fewer than in Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, according to a report released last week by the property consultancy Colliers International.
The ratio for nurses is 2.7 to 1,000 people, again fewer than in Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. The comparable figures in developed countries are, for example, about 3.7 doctors per 1,000 people in Germany – the highest level among European and North American countries – and 13.4 nurses per 1,000 people in Holland.
Abu Dhabi needs an additional 3,100 doctors by 2020, according to the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi.
“The challenge is some hospitals open up and take physicians from the local market, where doctors remain a very scarce resource, because they have an existing local patient base,” said Binay Shetty, chief operating officer of NMC Healthcare.
“Here they [hospitals] had recruited from abroad historically but because of the pace of growth is so quick now, hospitals tend to recruit from the local market and this leads to short term inflation of salaries.”
He was speaking at the Healthcare Investment Conference in Dubai last week.
NMC Healthcare, which employs 440 doctors, expects to increase that number over the next five years as it opens 100-bed Brightpoint Maternity Hospital in Abu Dhabi and a 60-bed general hospital in Dubai Investment Park in first half of 2014, as well as a medical centre in Al Ain in the latter part of 2014 and a 250-bed Khalifa City Hospital first half of 2015.
About 98 per cent of NMC’s doctors are recruited from 18 countries. Mr Shetty said the UAE had historically hired doctors from the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Gulf, but Europe was becoming a new sourcing market. .
Healthcare operators also blamed the long licensing process for the slow pace of recruitment.
Sobhi Batterjee, Saudi German Hospitals Group’s president and chief executive, said the hiring process took three to eight months, “so you snatch from the next door”.
“So allow organisations to bring in qualified doctors and staff from abroad and give them temporary licenses,” he said.
“Otherwise the cost of health care will rise here and people will travel abroad for health care.”
The Saudi German Hospital, which opened in 2011, has 60 doctors; about 20 per cent of them were recruited from within the UAE.
Mr Batterjee noted that medical consultations cost Dh700 in Dubai and 200 riyals (Dh195) in Saudi Arabia. The average cost of giving birth in a hospital in Dubai is Dh20,000, whereas it is just 5,000 riyals in Saudi Arabia, according to Mr Batterjee.
Ravi Dhir, the chief executive of the investment firm Healthcare Mena, said regulations were the biggest challenge.
“If I open a hospital, I paid for investment for 18 months before a patient comes in,” he said.
The average salary of a specialist doctor in the UAE is Dh75,000 to Dh80,000 a month, and for general physicians it can be around Dh40,000 a month, according to operators at the conference.
The salaries of doctors in the UAE have risen by 5 to 10 per cent, and that of nurses by 3 to 5 per cent over the past couple of years, they said.
Mr Dhir’s group employs 200 doctors in its medical centres and a hospital in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai. Fifteen to 20 per cent of them were recruited within the UAE.
Healthcare Mena has 13 medical centres in the UAE and a hospital – the National Hospital, which it acquired from NMC Healthcare in 2011 – in Abu Dhabi. It will acquire six primary care centres in Saudi Arabia and four in Qatar by the first quarter of next year, and that would increase the number of staff to 1,000.
Mitul Modi, the healthcare division director of the executive search firm Carmichael Fisher, said the lack of academic facilities and the misperception of the security situation in this part of the Middle East were hampering recruitment of foreign healthcare professionals.
“Here there is ample funding, but that doesn’t mean paying people will get you the best people,” Mr Modi said.