Swift Medical Tourism Recovery Amid the Pandemic: A Case of the UAE

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In February 2020, expert data reported that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) medical tourism market was worth nearly $ 1 billion, with a projected compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.546%. The data noted that the market size was poised to reach $1.25 billion by 2025 — and there was no stopping it until the coronavirus pandemic came and paralyzed the robust medical tourism market in the region and across the world. 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) held the largest share in the market and expanded inbound medical travel to the region in the past decade. The rise in multispecialty hospitals and healthcare cities, as well as the growing network of major health buyers across the region, attracted hundreds of thousands of international patients from many parts of the world, particularly other Gulf Cooperation Council nations, Asia, and Europe.

However, in the wake of the pandemic, top medical tourism destination hubs such as the King’s College Hospital and Emirates hospital in Dubai shut down medical services for elective procedures to free up resources in the fight against the coronavirus. Non-urgent orthopedic surgeries, cosmetic procedures, dental care, and cardiac surgeries - which are the major drivers of medical travel - were canceled as travel restrictions pervaded international borders. The travel restrictions and global shutdown of travel borders dampened inbound medical tourism in the region, leading to a massive drop in revenue for stakeholders. 

However, the UAE government swiftly pivoted strategies to curb the further spread of the virus and promote an early recovery of the industry.

One of the UAE’s main strategies to revive the medical travel industry was making private hospitals COVID-19-free. The country rolled out an aggressive containment plan in private hospitals that involved aggressive screening of patients and executing stringent coronavirus preventive protocols to lower the transmission of the virus. Officials also set up dozens of drive-through test facilities to ramp up testing across the country.  The exercise saw more than 100,000 people being screened across the UAE every day, promoting early detection of cases and curbing spread of the virus.

According to the Dubai Health Authority, the UAE had performed more than 4 million PCR tests across the country as of early August this year, placing it fifth globally in terms of testing per capita.

As part of the plan, asymptomatic patients who tested positive for the virus were immediately quarantined either at home or in apartments supported by the government until they were no more infectious. The Dubai World Trade Center was also converted into a 3,000-bed world-class quarantine facility within 10 days to isolate asymptomatic COVID-19 patients and those exposed to the infection. This strategy ensured that asymptomatic COVID-19 patients were kept out of hospital premises and ICU beds were not unnecessarily occupied - in contrast to strategies adopted by other countries where most ICU beds housed COVID-19 patients.

Further, the government designated only a few public and private facilities for treating COVID-19 patients, leaving the rest COVID-19-free - also in contrast to neighboring countries where nearly all hospitals were COVID-19 treatment facilities to boost their surge capacities.

Within weeks, the government established several new hospitals to manage the crisis and still provide non-COVID-19 care. The Dubai Health Authority, for instance, established 45 new hospitals during the first half of 2020 to strengthen its capacity to receive international patients and treat COVID-19 patients.

At the same time, the government took measures to rebrand medical tourism support systems, remodeling them to meet international best practices and create an enabling environment for medical travel. Airlines, hotels, malls, restaurants soon resumed business, implementing strict hygiene measures that built an ecosystem that will drive medical travel.

UAE also leveraged technology to bypass the barrier of travel restrictions. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the use of telehealth solutions across the UAE, with health buyers and payers adopting telehealth consultations. The government also established payment gateways to drive teleconsultations and other digital health solutions, including remote monitoring and home care. The country also deployed robots in hospitals for disinfection, patient monitoring, and delivery of medicines and food to patients to limit human contact.

These strategies were vital in rebuilding patients’ confidence in visiting hospitals when the region reopened its borders. When the UAE reopened its doors to medical tourists, many of the preferred medical tourism hubs saw an expected rise in domestic and international travel, resuming non-elective care services that had been defunct for months. UAE became the first country to resume medical travel when most tourism destinations were still shuttered indefinitely.

Dubai reopened to international tourists on July 7, seeing an uptick in medical tourists in the weeks that followed. In early August, King’s College Hospital in Dubai reported recovering roughly 60 percent of the medical tourist levels seen in January. The hospital’s officials reported a surge in inbound travel from other GCC countries and African nations.

The aggressive and assertive approach the UAE took to rein in the coronavirus pandemic has ranked it as one of the safest nations during the pandemic, ranking among the top ten in the world in managing COVID-19 and number one in the Arab region. Furthermore, these measures boosted the country’s rankings in the Medical Tourism Index 2020-2021, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi among the top 10 global medical tourism destinations and number one and two respectively in the MTI’s ranking for top medical tourism destinations in the Arab region.

The UAE has been successful in containing the coronavirus outbreak in the country, implementing stringent containment strategies early in the pandemic. These decisive actions have injected confidence in hundreds of thousands of international patients with pent-up demand that had been unattended to during the months of global lockdown. Now, the region’s proactive approach is beginning to pay off, as it is ranked one of the safest nations amid the pandemic, rebranding its medical tourism ecosystem to drive inbound medical travel in the post-COVID-19 world.