By Hossam Abougabal
As the UAE continues to build itself as a regional hub, recent efforts have been in the direction of developing a healthcare system that mirrors international standards. Healthcare is not only the backbone of any society; it’s also big business and an opportunity for the UAE to further consolidate itself as a regional hub across many industries. The UAE now has more than 40 public hospitals, compared with only seven in 1970. The Ministry of Health has used multimillion-dollar measures to expand healthcare facilities and hospitals in the seven emirates. In order to attract wealthy UAE nationals and expatriates, who have traditionally travelled abroad for serious medical care, Dubai has also developed Health- care City – a hospital free zone which offers advanced private healthcare. The region currently tops many lists of chronic diseases. Diabetes is rising, obesity is out of control, heart disease is growing and stress-related illnesses cost industries millions. Therefore one assumes the development of healthcare is focussed on benefiting citizens and residents in the country. However, recent developments suggest that the big business that surrounds medicine and healthcare has enticed authorities to grow the UAE as a regional centre of technology and innovation in order to drive private business and make the country into a desirable destination for medical tourists coming from abroad.
Where people in the past followed the trails to holy lands for spiritual healing, they are now chasing the best doctors, hospitals and treatments from around the world, and medical tourism is by no means a new phenomenon. POLICY speaks with Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the American Medical Tourism Association, about what the region is doing and how it needs to continue in order to replicate the success of the US and Cuba in attracting medical tourists from across the globe. For more than 40 years, Cuba has positioned itself as a hub for medical tourism. Although it has largely been fuelled by cheaper treatment, one can not ignore the medical and scientific excellence of many Havana hospitals. The US has also boasted large numbers of tourists visiting for medical reasons. The Medical Tourism Association, also referred to as the Medical Travel Association, is the first nonprofit, membership-based international trade association for the medical tourism and global healthcare industry. It is made up of top international hospitals, healthcare providers, medical travel facilitators, insurance companies and other affiliated companies and members with the common goal of promoting the highest level of quality of healthcare to patients in a global environment. Or, at least, that is what they claim to do. In essence, the association is a facilitator that makes it easier for patients to travel between countries for different treatments. Edelheit, who recently visited Dubai to give talks on how the UAE can further consolidate its potential status of becoming a medical hub, explains the importance of specialised staff. “The region often lacks the right specialists to take a country from A to B” he says. He feels that, although the UAE is on the right track, it must invest heavily in ensuring that healthcare providers are not only equipped with the best doctors, but also with the best operational staff in order to maximise efficiency that, in turn, will raise standards. Edelheit adds that the potential for the UAE to achieve this status is huge and refers to neighbouring countries with ailing healthcare systems that would compromise the huge numbers flooding to hospitals across all of the Emirates. The implications of medical tourism, not only affect the healthcare industry, but also the insurance one. Many with- in the insurance world have predicted the move to make the UAE a medical tourism destination.