Healthy demand: advancements made in Middle East medicine

Growing populations and an increase in life-threatening diseases continue to put pressure on medical services in the Middle East. Louise O'Regan considers the advancements in the region that are helping the sector meet its healthcare needs

As we enter 2012, the demand for healthcare in the Middle East continues to rise. Not only is the region under pressure to cater for bourgeoning populations requiring basic medical services; it is also battling with high rates of life threatening diseases such as diabetes, cancer and obesity, triggered by lifestyle changes and access to modern amenities.

Until recently, existing public sector healthcare facilities have struggled to keep up with the soaring requirements, and many residents in the Gulf region continue to travel abroad for their healthcare needs. Experts say an estimated US$25bn is spent on treatment abroad every year, as the sector continues to lag behind other parts of the world.

That said, there have been some significant developments in the field over the last decade, and going forward, experts believe this will only continue as governments strive to reverse the existing trends and turn the GCC region into a hub for medical tourism.

“Over the past 10 years, there has been an improvement in regulations of healthcare facilities and licensing of healthcare professionals, consistent with international guidelines,” says Ali Al Shorafa, CEO of Abu Dhabi-based hospital developer UEMedical. “Meanwhile, facilities are now moving towards specialisation in order to achieve higher clinical outcomes, and the number of medical schools has also increased.”

Sandeep Sinha, Health consultant at Frost and Sullivan, adds that many countries have now introduced healthcare insurance, which has had a key role to play in making healthcare more accessible and affordable. In 2006, Abu Dhabi became one of the first places to introduce the policy, whilst Saudi Arabia required companies and sponsors to provide medical insurance for staff from 2009. Dubai is currently reviewing a similar scheme.

Private healthcare ‘important’

Another highlight has been the inflow of private companies into the sector. As well as boosting the number of facilities, private companies have been essential in introducing international names and standards into the market. “Private healthcare companies play an important role in the healthcare transformation that we are currently witnessing in the region,” says Indian entrepreneur Dr BR Shetty, owner of Dubai medical company NMC Healthcare. “Capital investment in new facilities, provision of new medical technologies and expertise are some of the strengths private players are bringing.”

Today, he adds, governments are more willing than ever to partner with and accommodate the private sector, thereby creating ever more opportunities for growth. In Saudi Arabia, ministers are giving land away for free for the development of hospitals, and offering interest-free loans to healthcare providers.

In a bid to boost their reputations, Gulf countries in particular have introduced a slew of public-funded projects related to healthcare. Only this month, Saudi Arabia awarded US$1.4bn worth of contracts for healthcare projects, while Oman has since made moves to start the build of its US$1bn medical city in Salalah.

UAE attracting international institutions

But it is the UAE which continues to lead the way in the market, with developments such as Dubai Healthcare City and Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi attracting some of the world’s biggest names in medicine. Among them are US brands John Hopkins International, Cleveland Clinic, Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic, alongside Great Ormond Street Hospital and Imperial College London from the UK. Others include Bumrungrad International from Thailand, and Austria’s Medical University of Vienna International.

In the future, experts believe surrounding countries will continue to follow in the UAE’s footsteps, as they seek to enhance their status’ in the medical field. According to Dr Shetty, compared with the low growth in the mature markets such as the US and Europe, the healthcare market in the Middle East looks set to grow at a fast pace.