By TravelSmart Desk

Dubai’s ambition to become the Middle East’s paramount provider of medical tourism has taken some significant steps forward, with the emirate easily surpassing initial targets for numbers of patients treated and revenues two years after the initiative was first announced, says a review on the subject by Oxford Business Goup. However, there are also significant challenges ahead for private health care providers, regulators and developers as Dubai attempts to build a global reputation and establish its position in a crowded international market, it says.

It points out how Dubai’s strategy of investment and forward planning that anticipates and stimulates growth, rather than responding to existing demand, has been paying rich dividends. As a result of this approach some of the prerequisites for a successful medical tourism sector were already in place before Dubai Health Authority announced its medical tourism initiative in 2012. The health care centres on the 380,000-sq-metre campus at Dubai Healthcare City (DHCC) are less than a 10-minute drive from the world’s busiest international airport, and the new DHCC wellness district being built over 2.04m sq metres at Dubai Khor, is less than 20 minutes away from the airport’s terminals.

The first phase of DHCC’s campus is almost full, with 96% of the available space in the free zone taken by clinics, health education providers and medical science and technology firms. According to DHCC’s first-half review in 2015, the medical cluster has more than 5000 practising health care professionals in 132 clinics and 190 non-clinical facilities.

In March 2015 the second, and much larger, DHCC free zone campus was launched with a different focus. “Phase 2 will drive the global trend of preventative health care as we introduce unique rehabilitation and wellness concepts,” said Raja Al Gurg, vice-chairperson and executive director of Dubai Healthcare City Authority. According to the state news group, Emirates News Agency, the second phase of DHCC will cost between Dh3bn ($816.6m) to Dh5bn ($1.4bn) to complete.

The development of the wellness cluster is a response to regional demographics and the prevalence of non-communicable medical conditions. According to DHCC, the GCC’s over-65 population is expected to grow from 1.2m in 2015 to 14.2m in 2050, while the overall population in the bloc is expected to reach 50m by 2020. The International Diabetes Federation (IDF) reports that the 10 countries with the highest incidence of type 2 diabetes in the world include five GCC states. The IDF has stated that simply based on demographic trends, incidence of type 2 diabetes will increase by 94% across the MENA region from 2010 to 2030. The master plan for DHCC’s wellness cluster is to develop a riverside campus including health care facilities, fitness centres, spas, hotels and medical education establishments.

Several key facilities already associated with the new wellness cluster are the Marriott Hotel Al Jaddaf, which opened in January 2014, and the Swiss International Scientific School Dubai (SISSD), which welcomed its first cohort of pupils in September 2015. The Marriott Hotel has 353 rooms across eight floors and 128 fully furnished one-, two-and three-bedroom flats under the Marriott Exclusive Apartments brand. SISSD offers a multi-lingual education following the International Baccalaureate and Swiss Matura curricula. The 67,845-sq-metre school has capacity for 2000 students, including 350 boarders and opened on August 30, 2015. DHCC has declared 25% of space on its new health care campus will be for medical and wellness services, and another 25% will be dedicated to hospitality.

Specialist Treatment

While wellness is the focus at DHCC’s Phase 2, the most significant new developments taking place at Phase 1 are concerned with medical education, with the Mohammed Bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences due to enrol its first class of undergraduates in September 2016, and the construction of a new acute 400-bed infirmary, the Mohammed Bin Rashid University Hospital (MBR-UH).

When the Dubai Health Authority released its first Health Accounts System of Dubai data in 2014, it showed that citizens travelling abroad for treatment often saw oncologists, orthopaedic surgeons, neurosurgeons and cardiologists. If this pattern typifies the GCC region, specialists working at MBR-UH could treat significant numbers of patients from neighbouring Gulf states, in addition to citizens of Dubai, in the future. Moritz Hartmann, general manager for the Middle East at Roche Diagnostics, believes it is important that the best technology is used to serve both medical tourists as well as residents. “Automation will be key to ensure consistent levels of quality if Dubai is to develop a good reputation as a centre of medical tourism,” Hartmann told OBG.

The review points out that when the medical tourism strategy was first announced in 2012, its aim was to attract 500,000 health tourists by 2020, generating Dh2.6bn ($707.7m) in revenues. In October 2015 Dr Layla Mohamed Al Marzouqi, the director of health regulation and the Dubai medical tourism project at the Dubai Health Authority, said that in the first half of the year, 16 private hospitals in Dubai had treated 256,097 medical tourists, generating revenues of Dh1bn ($272.2m) in six months. Of those patients 33% were Asian, 27% European and 23% from neighbouring Arab countries and the GCC. It was stressed that this data had been supplied by 16 of the 26 private hospitals in Dubai, and that it did not capture the wider scope of services provided by clinics and wellness centres. In 2015 Dubai attracted a total of 630,833 international and domestic medical tourists, generating around Dh1.5bn ($418.5m) in revenues, with 47% of the tourists being international.

Data released in early 2015 gave an insight into the volume and variety of medical procedures provided for medical tourists at DHCC. It estimated that 15% of its 1.2m patients had come to Dubai as medical tourists. The most sought-after services were infertility treatment, cosmetic surgery and dental procedures. Overall, patient numbers at DHCC increased 20% compared to 2013. Broadening the definition of medical tourism to include people booking in for spa treatments or health farm breaks in Phase 2 of DHCC will help to boost revenues when those facilities have been completed.

In order to help private medical providers to meet international demand for treatments in Dubai, a Medical Tourism Club was established. Its members are drawn from 26 different facilities and membership enables them to provide a clear service to people visiting Dubai for treatment. “The club also enables us to track the number of tourists and their country of origin, making it more efficient in terms of targeting marketing efforts to specific markets,” Mohaymen Abdelghany, CEO of Al Zahra Hospital, Dubai, told OBG. “Medical tourism is an important sector for us and it is set to grow considerably as Dubai positions itself as a regional and international centre.” The Medical Tourism Club also helps medical tourists visiting Dubai with multiple-entry visas, accommodation and travel packages.

Price Comparisons

When it comes to global competition for medical tourism services, Dubai can find itself competing with long-established clinics in Europe or North America for specialist medical procedures, but also with countries offering cosmetic surgery packages for much lower prices. “There are many different segments within the medical tourism market, but clearly to succeed the market must be cost-competitive on the global stage,” Elie Tohme, general manager of GlobeMed Gulf Healthcare Solutions, told OBG. “Dubai still can improve here, with its costs being comparable to several European locations; Dubai costs continue to be at the upper end of the regional scale at this time.”

Abboud Bejjani, regional vice-president of the US bio-pharmaceuticals company AbbVie, told OBG that he believes the cost of delivering medical tourism may undermine its growth in Dubai. “The problem is that in health care you need local expertise, and if you try to import everything, companies, staff and customers, it gets very expensive,” Bejjani told OBG.

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