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Dubai Medical Tourism Expansion Par for Course

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A quarter-century ago, Dubai was not much more than a quiet trading post in the United Arab Emirates, surrounded by barren dessert, barely a skyscraper for the eye to see.

Who would have thought that on a week when Dubai welcomed the sport's top names Tiger Woodsamong them to the Dubai Desert Classic on what years ago appeared to be the most unlikely of golf courses, influential healthcare strategists and policymakers from around the world would also gather to address another ambitious Arab proposition namely, a plan to make Dubai a hub for medical tourism during the Arab Health Congress 2014, at the World Trade Centre in Dubai.

This is a great place for those around the world to exchange thoughts and ideas, said Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Medical Tourism Association, who, among thousands of delegates and hundreds of companies at the international showcase, led a workshop on The Opportunity for Centers of Excellence in the Middle East. One of the problems in the region is that there is often a lack of expertise to take countries from A to B.

New Facilities UnderwayTimes are changing. Edelheit said federal healthcare initiatives specifically medical tourism in Dubai have grown tremendously in the last decade and that construction of new medical facilities will be needed at the forefront of any plans to sustain future expansion.

Compulsory health insurance in Dubai and the development of medical tourism could very likely turn the UAE into a regional medical hub, said Edelheit, who also presented a keynote on The Growing Integration of Medical Tourism and Health Insurance Policies in the GCC and Middle East, at a special Healthcare Insurance Forum.

Increased opportunities for insurers, corporate investment and wider use of claims data as a tool to address current concerns will not only instill confidence in the market, but, at the same time, provide reassurance for UAE residents who will be happy to see continued improvements in their own access to top-notch care.

More than Dh10 billion was spent on healthcare in Dubai during 2012, half in the private sector, according to the Dubai Health Authority, which released the figures in keeping with an earlier promise to promote transparency related to healthcare expenditures.

Hospitality Gains

Edelheit said the return on medical infrastructure spending is capable of yielding significantly more than those comparable investments made previously in the hospitality industry. That focus on travel and tourism has already paid dividends. UAE ranks 28th worldwide tops in the Middle East and North Africa among nations for travel and tourism competiveness.

Not surprisingly, the increase in passenger traffic made last year the second busiest travel hub in the world, second only to London's Heathrow, but exceeding that of Charles de Gaulle in Paris and Frankfurt Airport.

That news is, perhaps, bittersweet to Dubai officials. Patients leaving UAE for treatments and procedures in Europe and the United States is actually on the rise. However, the doctor shortage at home and a deluge of overseas hotels and resorts seeking to tap into lucrative Middle Eastern markets by customizing plans from Arab-speaking sales teams to halal menus in an attempt to identify and attract potential UAE patients has not gone unnoticed.

To reverse the trend and to not only keep Emiratis and expats at bay, but to target medical tourism patients from abroad and address the decline in medical graduates as well, Dubai rulers announced plans to build a new teaching hospital and affiliated medical collage at cost of Dh 1 billion. The 300-bed University Hospital in Dubai Silicon Oasis will create some 4,000 jobs and, when completed in 2017, have the capacity to treat 7.000 patients a year. Fakeeh Medical University will open two years later.

The initiative is a step forward in the implementation of the strategy of the executive office to make Dubai a hub for medical tourism, Dr. Mohammed Al Zarooni, vice chairman of Dubai Silicon Oasis Authority, told The National.

Zarooni said the hospital will increase the number of medical tourism patients by 15 percent annually, and top some 20 million by 2015.

Centers of Excellence

The hospital and medical university will operate in partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology in Dubai Silicon Oasis, the American University of Sharjah and Al Ain University, complete with centers of excellence that specialize in pediatric care, cardiology and spine surgery, plastic and cosmetic laser surgery and obesity management.

This new project — as will any new project — will boost medical tourism, said Dr. Khaliq Raza Khan, of Ismail Medical Centre in Dubai. People want to come to the Gulf and to Dubai for healthcare. Not only that, but bringing more competitiveness in the market will improve the services of all residents in the emirate.

News of the project comes on the heels of a McKinsey & Company report, which found that the Arab Gulf states are producing too few medical graduates to meet the soaring demand for healthcare in the region.

The report predicts that overall demand for healthcare in the GCC will increase by 240 percent in the next 20 years, but up to 80 percent of medical staff in some hospitals and clinics are from outside the region and trained in more than 50 different countries.

It's better to train home-grown talent that to employ from overseas of course it is, said Khan. We have to invest in the education of our own; that is very important.

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